Solo Notes: Surveying as a Practice
Solo Notes (and its counterpart Career Notes) is a regular feature in POB, which aims to highlight the stories of the careers of solo surveyors or sole proprietors of small firms.
We try to capture these profiles in an editorial-focused way. However, very rarely, we get a submission with a voice that shouldn’t be altered. The following interview with Lee Alan Spurgeon, owner and president of Township Surveys LLC in Oregon, is such a submission. As you’ll find out, his passion and voice is unlike any other.
My full name is Lee Alan Spurgeon, but no one ever called me by my full name except my mom, and she only did it when I was in trouble like the time I tried to spray paint the cat. I did it for science, so it was okay. I’m kind of like Stephen Hawking in that regard.
I am the owner and president of Township Surveys LLC, which is located in Oregon City, Oregon about two blocks from the end of the Oregon Trail. I am a registered professional land surveyor licensed in Oregon. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, an associate of arts and sciences degree, and an associate degree in aviation maintenance. I have been surveying since 1977, which means I’m getting old. I founded Township Surveys in 2011. We do cadastral surveying on properties within a 75-mile radius of Oregon City, and we do surveying for litigation and boundary conflicts throughout the state.
Our clients are generally older and want to partition their property or do a property line adjustment in order to get a nest egg to retire. They are also insurance companies who hire us to defend against timber trespass litigation, and clients involved in conflict of some sort with their neighbors. (Most neighbor conflicts involve dogs, junk, noise, ATVs, or just general snarkiness and a lack of manners, and the conflict invariably ends up in a land dispute.)
Q: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
A: There are three things about being a surveyor that provide me with the most satisfaction. First, when I leave for the office in the morning, I almost never have a predictable or repetitious day. Every day is different and every day has a new and interesting challenge. I hope I learn something new every single day I am on the job. Remember that surveying is a practice, which means you do not know it all and you are constantly learning new things. If you are a strict throughput type of person, you are missing everything about the profession, which is just outright fun.
Second, I love the camaraderie that surveyors enjoy with their crew members, contractors, engineers, attorneys, other surveyors and our clients. Surveyors need to be adept at, and need to enjoy, building teams and working in team environments. This is especially true with building a team within your own company. You need to be able to create an environment where field crews, draftsmen, and office staff all mesh together, like each other and care that their company is producing the best surveys they can possibly produce. The people in your company are the most precious assets you have if they are nurtured, taught, trained, valued and enthusiastically enjoy working with the team.
Third, I find it very satisfying to resolve an extremely vexing boundary dispute and leave a neighborhood with a better chance of having peace break out then when you came to the jobsite. Even if one resolves a boundary and establishes a line, there is a good chance one of the parties is going to have to move after the dispute is over because they cannot stand living next to their neighbors. If one can end the dispute using conflict resolution techniques and the two antagonists can solve the root causes of the dispute (It is almost never about where the line is), then I feel I have actually done something that is satisfying and worthwhile.
Q: What are your favorite tools to use?
A: The favorite tool we use is our minds. We are professionals and when you are a professional, one size doesn’t fit all. If we are dealing with conflicts, we need to train our minds to be more of a detective in order to find the best evidence of the true boundary lines and less of a mathematician or measurer. Our field crews need to be aware of everything that may affect a boundary resolution, especially if the survey is going to be used in litigation. Does that mowed area of grass have significance in determining the boundary? Does it support or undermine an adverse possession case? Is that old man who comes out and talks to the instrument man (because he is a stationary target) going to provide the one clue that allows you to defend a boundary resolution? If this old man does give your field crew the one vital clue, are your field crews trained to put his parole evidence in the field notes, so that this parole evidence will be allowed and admissible in court?
Gathering evidence requires sharp minds and constant training and the field crews need to be briefed and well informed when they leave the office for the jobsite. It doesn’t matter one bit if you have the latest high-tech doo-dads to survey if your crews are clueless about what is or isn’t boundary evidence.
Q: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
A: I manage to stay on top of the latest trends and technologies by being very active in my state surveying association, the Professional Land Surveyors of Oregon. The PLSO provides training seminars at the annual conference, and I am the head of a very active mentoring program. If someone phones or e-mails the Education and Outreach Committee and wants to know something about a subject, such as ground penetrating radar, then I try to connect a PLSO member with someone who is skilled and knowledgeable about its use. Just facilitating the connection tends to bleed some knowledge on to me, perhaps through osmosis.
Q: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
A: As for memorable stories, I regularly write columns about them in the Oregon Surveyor magazine. I will include one story, which was about science fiction writer, Ursula LaGuinn’s chicken. [See article in this month’s digital edition of POB.]
Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
A: I believe my biggest challenge so far was dealing with the downturn, which started in late 2007 and lasted until late 2015. Trying to keep a company solvent during a time when builders could not obtain credit was extremely tough. There were many months when I paid everyone but myself. Working as hard as I did without a paycheck was difficult. I would guess that more than half of all surveying firms went out of business in our area during the downturn. Out of work surveyors were desperate for jobs, and they would hang up their shingle and drive prices down by working for next to nothing. Starving a little less quickly is not a formula for business success.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
A: My advice to those starting out in the field is to realize that surveying is a practice. By practice, I mean it is something that isn’t perfected overnight. It takes a bit of patience and quite a bit of time to be a skilled professional, but if you are always striving to learn more, you will get there. One of the smartest people I ever knew said that one should try to learn something from every person you ever meet.
I remember talking to an Old Believer Russian berry farmer who had to explain to me why he wanted his land partitioned so that he had long lots running north and south. He explained that long rows of berries oriented south to north had the best sunlight, sweetest berries, and made each field more productive because long rows meant less space was needed to turn the harvesting combine around. By taking the time to understand the true needs of this client, I was able to look like the smartest surveyor in the world when my client’s neighbor came into my office a couple months later and wanted a partition for his berry fields. It may seem to be a very small niche to partition berry fields, but the same concept applies to virtually every aspect of surveying.
Knowledge builds on knowledge, and if you are always striving to learn more, you will end up being a damn good surveyor.
Q: How has the surveying profession changed since you started, and where do you see it heading in the future?
A: Surveying has changed quite a bit since I got into the field in 1977. We have incredible tools at our disposal that are faster, more accurate, and more productive than anyone could have dreamed of [back then]. In 1977, EDM instruments — which you latched on top of your theodolite — were finally affordable enough for every surveyor, and that led to some strange times when one surveyor would be calling another surveyor’s measurements off by a hundredth-of-a-foot or less. Surveys were reduced to measuring contests, and it seemed like surveyors completely forgot the whole point of following the footsteps of their predecessors, holding the position of original monuments, and determining boundary lines by established principles derived from statute and case law. The measuring contest mentality has lessened over the years, but every now and then, another surveyor will call one of my monuments off by two-hundredths-of-a-foot. This amuses me immensely. When someone in my company sees something like this, they will take the survey map and show everyone else declaring sarcastically that they have now found the smartest, most skilled, and most technically proficient surveyor in the entire world — and possibly the entire galaxy throughout the course of human and maybe alien existence. Harsh? A tad bit, I admit, but if this keeps even one surveyor from tearing apart the entire warp and woof of surveying by calling off someone else’s work by a hundredth, it is well worth it.
With that in mind, I hope the future of surveying goes in a direction where surveyors see themselves as skilled professionals who treat their client’s needs as an individually crafted job and not as some sort of commodity that has to be processed through the survey factory as quickly as possible. I think if surveyors respect the value that they add to a project, then we are more likely to behave more professionally and to pay ourselves as highly qualified professionals, as opposed to people who measure dirt for a living.
Lee Alan Spurgeon is owner and president of Township Surveys LLC, in Oregon City, Oregon. He has been surveying since 1977, and founded Township Surveys in 2011.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Alexis Brumm at email@example.com.