Land surveyors’ “bible” gets update and homebuyers to be educated on the value of a survey.

Land Surveyors’ “Bible” Gets Update

The Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States, one of the “Surveyors’ Bibles,” will be receiving a facelift over the next few years. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has begun developing the next edition in order to incorporate changes in statute and case law that have occurred over the last 30 years. The current edition, published in 1973, is becoming outdated.

The Manual describes how cadastral surveys of the public lands are completed in conformance to statutory law. The earliest rules governing the survey of the public lands were issued in manuscript and in printed circulars in 1785. This new version of the Manual is mainly intended to balance the printed instructions with current legislation, judicial and administrative decisions, and current surveying practice. The impetus for this update, according to Robert Dahl, BLM cadastral surveyor and point-person for this project, was a steady stream of feedback from cadastral surveyors in the field, attorneys and title insurance workers asking, “When is the BLM going to update the Manual?”

The impact of this book crosses many fields and disciplines; its relevance is not solely to the government surveyor. The targeted audience of the Manual is the surveyor who works with the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). And since 30 western states were originally surveyed using this system, it impacts a large percentage of surveyors in the United States, those in private practice, as well as those who work for the federal government. Dahl said that the “BLM cannot tell the private land surveyor how to survey, however, if the land surveyor goes out to survey land that was originally surveyed using the Public Land Survey System, even if the client is a private land owner, the Manual gives instruction on how to protect the private rights of that land owner.” Dahl points out that it is important not to confuse the status of the land or who owns it with the way the land was originally surveyed. Land built on the PLSS may be privately held today but the principles in the Manual may still apply.

The Manual is also used by attorneys, as well as title insurance company personnel and real estate agents, all of whom need to have a working knowledge of the laws that govern property rights.

Accordingly, this new edition will include a discussion of the law and policies of surveying and boundaries as they have developed since the last edition of 1973. “Land surveyors are the first line of protection for private property rights,” said Don Buhler, chief cadastral surveyor for the BLM. “Surveys must be legally correct, therefore the Manual is issued to guide land surveyors who exercise a technical responsibility in the execution of cadastral surveys or resurveys.”

Dahl said that one of the preliminary operating premises for the next addition of the Manual is that it will not be technology dependent. Today there is no need for the Manual to have a great deal of technical discussion, due to the large amount of technology-related material that is already in print. The meat of the new edition will be the case law and resurvey principles.

For surveyors that are apprehensive about the update, most of the Manual will not change. One thing that won’t change is the core of the Manual—the origin and history of the PLSS and the law. The 1973 Manual contains much of the same language as the 1930 Manual, and the new one is expected to be very similar to the 1973 version. Even the chapter headings and subheads are expected to remain the same; the changes will most likely only become evident once one reads deeper into it.

Although it is still very early in the process, Dahl foresees the most revisions being implemented to chapter seven of the Manual, Special Surveys, and specifically the section on water boundaries in order to bring it up to date with post-1973 federal court cases.

By the spring of 2003 the plan and process for the next edition of the Manual should be available for presentations. All interested parties will have ample time to comment. Prior to the comment period, editors will focus on the preliminary development of the content of the next edition. Buhler has final approval of the manual update, which is hoped to be completed in 2005.

“This Manual is about protecting property rights,” Dahl said. “We don’t want to write a new book on how to survey; we simply want to give solid instructions so that a judge will be able to say to a surveyor, ‘Yes, you protected that client’s property rights.’”

Homebuyers to be Educated on the Value of a Survey

Is an aerial photograph of a homebuyers’ property a sufficient “survey” of their newly acquired land? The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) appropriately says no and has taken its strong opposition to such a practice to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Last fall, HUD issued a proposed rule under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) titled “Simplifying and Improving the Process of Obtaining Mortgages to Reduce Settlements Costs to Consumers,” and gave interested parties the opportunity to comment on its content. Partner this with a California title insurance company advertisement promising homebuyers a “survey,” which was actually a simple aerial photograph, and ACSM saw an immediate need to educate new homebuyers on the benefits of a quality land survey.

ACSM sent comments regarding the rule to RESPA, a group named after the Act whose focus is to help homebuyers to be better shoppers in the homebuying process. ACSM’s comments stated that any efforts to make the settlement process easier and more understandable for the consumer should include full disclosure to the consumer regarding owner’s title insurance and the benefits of a survey. The ACSM comments pointed out that these two are linked, and that consumers are often confused about what they are receiving for their money. Specifically, the consumer often believes that a survey has been provided when in fact a copy of a previous survey or some other document is used to satisfy the lender’s needs, which may or may not be relied upon for the consumer’s needs.

ACSM members supported the written comments by setting up a meeting with RESPA officials, including Kenneth Markison, associate general counsel for HUD, RESPA division. At the meeting, ACSM representatives designed and proposed a survey exception form, similar to the inspection exception form currently included in settlement packages. The proposed form would include the benefits of a survey and give the buyer the opportunity to either request or opt out of a survey. ACSM also discussed language that could be incorporated into RESPA’s Homebuyer’s Kit.

Laurence Socci, ACSM’s government affairs consultant, was in attendance at the meeting, as well as Curt Sumner, executive director of ACSM and John Kohl, an ACSM member and land surveyor who has been closely involved in this issue. According to Socci, the RESPA officials were very receptive. He said they had not been aware of some of the issues that were brought up and welcomed the opportunity to become further educated themselves. He pointed out that ACSM “hopes to help the homebuyer by providing some information that they otherwise might not have access to. It’s good advice to get a survey.” Socci feels confident that the language and survey exception form will be incorporated into the process, perhaps in the next six months.