It is, at times, difficult to sift through the political language and bias that comes with reports related to the proposed barrier to be erected at the U.S. southern border. Two terms are often repeated that will be familiar to professional land surveyors: property rights and eminent domain. Regardless of where you stand on whether the barrier should be built, when it comes to property rights and eminent domain, you have to agree that the survey should come first.
Only about one-third of the land that would be used for the barrier is owned by the U.S. government or Native American tribes, according to the Government Accountability Office. As the Secure Fence Act of 2006 demonstrated, there will be resistance from private property owners. It is estimated that, of approximately 400 condemnation cases (eminent domain) from that effort, 90 were not resolved a decade later, and as recently as last September, 85 cases still remained open.
But first, the survey. As I noted in this column in March 2017, surveyor rights of access are not universal. Not even close. Government surveyors often have a statutory right of access where private surveyors may not. As I asked two years ago, shouldn’t surveyors working on government business be accorded those same rights? In the case of a small Texas church, it was reported that a federal judge had to rule that government surveyors could begin their work. It wasn’t clear whether they were private surveyors under contract or actual government employees. In February of this year, the church still wanted to fight the “trespass,” but was informed by its lawyers it could only dispute the amount of compensation for the land that would be taken.
Representative Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, has estimated the government could seize the land from as many as 1,000 property owners in his district alone. This will be messy, even if there were no political opposition to the project.
Surveyors end up being the Marines here — the first into the field. As I noted in “Landowner Rights vs. Surveyor Access” in January 2017, public perception does not match the actual role the surveyor plays. We need some positive PR. Professional land surveyors are true to the boundary; they are not representing the U.S. government trying to take away private property. They simply want to define where the boundaries are, so that the property owners can protect their rights and get fair compensation if that’s the direction things take. Add the regional complexities of deeds dating back to when some of this land was part of Mexico or which lands might be tribal lands and there is a long line of footsteps to follow to protect private property rights, personal wealth, and the health, safety, and well-being of those in the path of the project. And all of that has to occur before construction can be funded and begun…or it should.
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