The sad conclusion that, to the general public, boundary monuments aren’t worth much is based on my 55 years of surveying and mapping experience, coupled with 26 overlapping years of selling real estate.

A big chunk of my geodetic surveying and topographic mapping work for the U.S. Geological Survey, National Mapping Division (and U.S. Army) was done in Oregon. My 32 state-to-state field party chief assignments for the USGS seemed mostly to start or end in Oregon, so when we attended my 93-year-old mother’s memorial near Reno, my wife and I made it a point to head home to Montana through some of my “old stomping grounds” in Oregon.  

On the drive, I noticed signs along Oregon highways warning of a $1,000 fine for littering. That started me thinking about how the general public values property corner monuments, boundaries and land surveying in general compared to litter.

Accompanying this column is a picture of a 1929 U.S. General Land Office section corner monument. It was part of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) that settled the west. For eastern land surveyors who may be less familiar, this is called a “brass cap” monument and was part of the “iron pipe” surveys starting in about 1911 when these monuments replaced notched rocks and pits and mounds at the corner of every square mile. This can hardly be called a “pin” as laymen are fond of saying. I found this one sloughed off of an eroded bank. Its position being lost, I kept it for “show and tell” in continuing education classes I have taught for realtors on “GIS, GPS and boundary law,” and for presentations I’ve given at high school career days.  

Note the warning, “PENALTY $250 FOR REMOVAL” at the red curved underlining. Using a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator on the web, I determined that $250 in 1929 dollars was worth $3,529 in 2016. That’s slightly more than 14 times its 1929 value. (And it is the equivalent of more than 3.5 times the fine for littering.) That got me thinking a little deeper.

Penalties or fines that cost us more tend to get more of our attention. For instance, I may hardly give a second thought to risking a $15 parking fine for convenience when I’m in a hurry (especially if the fine is close to the cost of that elusive space in a commercial parking lot). A $300 moving violation for going 10 mph over the speed limit on the interstate, however, definitely gets my attention. This is especially true when I consider the probable cost that could be added to my insurance. I will be much less careless and complacent regarding the latter. It’s human nature.

Flagrant Violations

Maybe it is because I sell rural acreages as a licensed broker in addition to being a licensed professional land surveyor, but I tend to encounter the following situations all too often: road builders, utilities installers, fence builders, cultivators, ranchers, county road graders, and the like tend to have an attitude of being flagrantly derelict about the importance and the value of preserving both property corner monuments and PLSS monuments. They typically don’t ask for these to be recovered and flagged so they can be protected as they do their work. I have found monuments of both types ripped out of the ground. But perhaps more insidiously destructive, I have found cases where the monument destroyer built, installed, or plowed whatever he/she was focused on accomplishing then drove the monument back into the ground in a considerably-incorrect location nearby, totally deceiving property owners as to the original, legal position. Sometimes, this grossly careless action misleads land owners for decades causing them to add improvements based on their incorrectly-marked boundaries.  

I’d like to see two legislative actions proposed in my home state of Montana and suggest the possible appropriateness in other states: First, a $1,000 penalty for willful, careless, disregardful or neglectful destruction of a junior property corner monument. Second, a $2,000 penalty for destruction of a senior PLSS monument. This would do the following:  

  1. Protect land owners (which our licenses inherently imply we need to be doing);  and 
  2. Greatly increase the awareness of the general public to the value of the work we professional land surveyors perform to objectively and accurately organize and systematize society’s land ownership.  

Objective and Accurate

Unlike lawyers, we do not advocate for a client, but rather present facts based on scientific measurement and boundary law. Real estate agents, title examiners, appraisers, real estate lawyers, professional engineers, and GIS professionals would have nothing to do without us professional land surveyors creating and retracing property boundaries to sustain legal property ownership!

We professional land surveyors tend to indulge obsessively in worrying about bearings, distances, closures, and the like, overlooking ... the value we bring in protecting property rights.

We professional land surveyors tend to indulge obsessively in worrying about bearings, distances, closures, and the like, overlooking the second aspect of our responsibility to the public. As previously described, it’s the value we bring in protecting property rights. We lose sight of the fact that a legally described boundary line on a plat, and corner monuments at each end of that boundary – all recorded with the county – is not viewed by the general public as being all that valuable or important. It is unsubstantial or abstract in the eye of the public. They cannot hold it or touch it, unlike the land or the home they buy that they can physically touch and feel. Perhaps that explains why I was paid without hesitation for the 45 rural properties I sold over the last two years, but I have had to file liens for payment on three of the land surveying projects I completed. This is highly disrespectful to our profession. It is not fun. And, in one case, I have had to hire a lawyer to foreclose on the owner’s recreational property so I will be paid for my land surveying work. This also seems to fit my earlier observation about how we pay attention when the costs of our actions escalate.

Incidentally, I do not casually discuss recovery or reset of “pins.” Instead, I recover or reset “corner monuments.” I’m purposely using terminology with my clients and realtors that implies esteemed and substantial value.