I have long held that the origins of a boundary dispute are misunderstood even by the participants. They name errant fencing, trespass, obstruction of view, or some other damage as their motivation. These injuries, real or perceived, are expounded upon by both parties during every site visit. This occurs so frequently, I am forced to reveal to the parties involved that as a licensed land surveyor, I am neither counselor nor priest.

Property owners’ explanations for the dispute range from likely to downright ridiculous. The best example of the latter is the rancorous dispute that arose from the annual gifting of sweet corn. During a particularly poor year for corn, the tribute was skipped. There was none to be had. The lack of corn in the pantry was apparently quite offensive and was avenged by ignoring a friendly wave. After many years, much aggravation, and thousands of dollars, their “boundary dispute” was finally resolved. To the best of my knowledge, the deficiency in corn remains unresolved.

Territorial Behavior

The cause of many disputes may be nothing more than territorial behavior. Frequently observed among other mammals, it is seldom considered in the context of human interaction. However, it is present, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that territorial behavior plays a role in boundary disputes. 

What does this behavior look like in humans? My search for the answer was as close as the local library, not only for voluminous research, but also for an interesting, albeit unnerving, social experiment. The sole purpose of the experiment was to encroach upon the territory of other library patrons, observe their behavior, and not get punched out in the process.

A territory is broadly defined as an area or space that is defended. It could be a political boundary, home range, or even personal space. The defense of territory is either through actual aggression or the threat of it. This behavior serves to distribute a given population of animals over a larger area. The result is less competition for food resources, safer undisturbed reproductive behavior, and fewer conflicts.

Defense of territory in the animal kingdom is relatively straightforward. They are free of the social conventions that govern polite human interaction. Any infraction or encroachment is met with immediate hostility. Typically, the more submissive individual recognizes their transgression and yields. If this does not happen, the bluster often becomes real physical violence. It was my sincerest hope that this would not occur during the library experiment.

The Experiment

The experiment, quite simple and only scientific in the most liberal sense of the word, revealed a great deal about the subject. Summoning my inner Jane Goodall and strolling about the library with pen and paper in hand, I found a suitable seat from which to observe the reading room. It didn’t take long to discern a pattern of behavior.

People of all ages were situated at several of the large tables in the center of the room. I recorded their relative positions and any pertinent details that would serve to demarcate their “territory.” Typically, it was a coat placed on the back of a chair or books and other personal effects arranged in a sort of low wall on the table. Without exception, new patrons entering the room – oblivious to my little study – would respect the established boundaries and choose a seat that would allow them the most personal space possible, thus evenly distributing my test subjects around the room.

More interesting still is what happened when one blissfully ignorant “subject” left the room for an extended period. Leaving behind a ball cap and notepad to memorialize his claim, he was absent for approximately 25 minutes. Despite a dwindling number of spaces and an ever-increasing number of people looking for places to sit, library patrons without exception honored the claim he staked. On three separate occasions, someone approached the seat, looked about, and retreated to another position. Upon returning, the fellow donned his cap and resumed reading undisturbed.

Testing the Boundaries

No longer satisfied with merely observing, I decided to join the experiment. I withdrew to a more remote area of the library where I observed an older gentleman seated alone at a long table. Absorbed in his book, he was unaware of my scrutiny, and it appeared that he would not leave anytime soon. He seemed the perfect test subject.

I approached cautiously. He lifted his eyes and nodded politely, as did I, but appeared uneasy when I assumed a post immediately adjacent to him. This choice on my part despite numerous other seats available at the table (and counter to my own good sense). Not wanting to annoy him or be bothersome in any way, for fear of tainting my results, I began to read quietly. 

Straightaway, he assumed a more rigid and reserved posture. Gone were the splayed knees and elbows on the armrests. Gone was his relaxed slouch and focus on reading. These were replaced by nervous fidgeting and shifting in his seat. We continued this way for the better part of five minutes until, satisfied that I had tormented the poor fellow enough, I took my leave. My very presence in such close proximity appeared to unnerve him. Although he said nothing, it was quite clear that I had encroached upon his personal space.

I returned to the reading room to find that the young man with the ball cap had again left his seat, although several books and his cap remained behind. Feeling full of myself, I assumed his place at the table and waited. When he returned, there was a look of utter confusion followed by irritation on his face.  He informed me that the seat was taken.  I apologized and quickly vacated the chair, my point having been made.

Drawing Conclusions

What’s clear from this little experiment is that I twice chose to ignore not only the personal space or territory of my subjects, but also the signs commonly used to demarcate it. Humans have thankfully evolved beyond marking our territory by scent, and most times, the social signals we use are understood by others. But when they are not, the result is often a dispute. Dare I say a boundary dispute?

Dr. Irwin Altman, social psychologist and author of the book, “Environment and Social Behavior: Personal Space, Privacy, Crowding and Territory,” identifies various classes of territory. 

Primary territory is that which belongs to an individual such as a home, car or even a spouse. 

Secondary territories are the places and things that we frequently use or occupy such as a church pew, a favorite booth in a restaurant, or seat at the bar. These are not held by the individual, but because of regular use, a sense of ownership is developed.

Public space is the final class. Each of these territories is safeguarded differently depending on their relative importance or class.

Interestingly, as I observed in the library experiment, personal effects are often left behind as evidence of a claim. This serves not only to mark territory, but also to elevate its stature. By leaving the ball cap, wholly owned by and personal to that young man, the space suddenly becomes more sanctified and respected. As a result, my intrusion, though I never touched any of his possessions, was received with hostility. The same sense of claim is achieved by placing a towel or blanket at the beach or a coat on the back of a chair in a sports bar.

boundary markerA property that is legally owned or perceived as such is defended in the most vigorous manner possible. There are few things as sacred to someone as their home and, by extension, the land it occupies. We lock our doors and fence our yards to exclude the public, not only as a deterrent, but as a clear social signal. When this is ignored or misunderstood –  as in a boundary dispute – tensions run high.

Land surveyors are commonly engaged to help impose a boundary. It’s no accident that I use the term impose. Contrast this, which is what a client is genuinely asking us to do, with the words “determine” or “retrace,” which it is our duty to do. 

Consciously or not, a client is often requesting validation of the social markers or boundaries they feel were ignored by a neighbor. In essence, during a boundary dispute, land surveyors review the record description of property and either affirm or deny the social signals of each party.

What are the signals? Quite simply, they are evidence of possession. Sturdy fence lines, stone walls, or readily visible corner monuments are seldom questioned or misunderstood. This is particularly true when age has given them the patina of reliability. Subtle signals such as low hedgerows, flowers, or mow lines are frequently overlooked. When this occurs, even an innocent or inadvertent action can fan the flames of our territorial behavior and invoke a subconscious necessity for defense.

This is, of course, a significant fact to keep in mind when working in the field. Although the formal appearance offered by an orange vest and handsomely lettered truck serves to provide a measure of protection from the wrath of an angry neighbor, it is hardly surefire in its protection. There is frequently collateral damage incurred by innocents including neighborhood children, dogs, and yes, even surveyors. Fortunately the damage is seldom serious, mostly verbal, and usually nothing more than pride is injured. But… better safe than sorry.

Room for Understanding

Throughout my career in land surveying, it has been my lot in life to manage what seems like more than my fair share of irate landowners. I would like to think that, from far too much practice, I have become somewhat proficient at it; however, there is always room for improvement.

While an understanding of the innate territorial nature of humankind does not change our duties in a boundary dispute, it can alter our approach to the situation. Sometimes a quarrel is nothing more than the perception of disrespect. We develop relationships, no matter how brief, with both our clients and the abutting landowners. Having respect and appreciation for their thoughts and feelings, even those that seem irrational, can make for a more relaxed and often more profitable project.

Listening to both sides of the argument will often reveal many things about a boundary that might never have been discovered otherwise. Parties to a dispute are often emotional for reasons they don’t fully understand, and sometimes they just need to vent. Letting them do so respectfully and constructively increases our credibility and helps to diffuse the situation. In fact, I’d like to think that it makes us better surveyors.