Are we in danger of over regulating ourselves?

This is an article I have wanted to write for a long time, but maybe lacked the courage to tackle what could be a very controversial subject. Most people tell me that in life you never want to lay all your cards on the table at one time. But I feel so strongly that I am willing to expose myself to any and all viewpoints. Let me start by giving a little background before getting to the meat of the problem.

When I started in this business in 1958, surveying was very different than it was just a few years later. Many registered surveyors were doing their own field work, survey problems were worked out in the field rather than in the computer, and a somewhat fair price structure for the work existed. Now, I will be the first to admit that this may have not been true in all parts of the nation. But the profession was in mostly good hands. Along came the 1960s when one week you could not spell party chief and the next week you were one. Somehow the registered surveyor found it more convenient to work in the office and thought he could pull the answer for that difficult survey out of the computer. Things just seemed to spiral downhill from there.

By the early 1970s, many registered surveyors (myself included) thought their state societies started passing laws to help regulate surveying and establish standards to stop some of the bad practices I have described. In Alabama, we established minimum standards that list the criteria for an adequate survey. These rules came about because a surveyor in court testified that 1' in 69' was acceptable for a rural survey. Since there were no rules at that time on accuracy, the courts in the state of Alabama returned the man’s survey registration.

Most state societies have a legislative committee that continues to bring forth new laws and regulations in the belief that somehow they will solve all problems. Murder has been illegal for over 2,000 years, and those laws haven’t stopped murder. In my extensive travel, all the 55 mph speed limit has done is to make lawbreakers out of motorists. Now that the speed limit has been raised to something reasonable I see most motorists traveling along within 5 mph of the limit with some under the posted speed.

This is the point I am trying to make: Some of our rules have become so restrictive that we are making lawbreakers out of good, honest professionals trying to provide an adequate survey in a short time frame. Additional laws will not make inadequate surveyors into good surveyors. They need to be turned into the board and have their registrations revoked. No one from the outside is asking us to pass more laws. The client does not want to pay more money for the survey. The title companies that want a more complete product request an ALTA survey.

I guess I could stop now and run for the hills, but I want to walk through the laws I think are important and laws that put an undue burden on the professional surveyor trying to make a living.

Minimum Technical Standards

The first thing to note about minimum standards is that they are minimum not maximum. Many states have some kind of standards that spell out accuracy requirements and what a complete survey should contain. The problem is that many of the survey standards were written or copied from other states and are very process-oriented instead of result-oriented. They call out how many times to turn angles and contain information about old technology. Good minimum standards should test results no matter what type of equipment is used. A good example is the ALTA standards. We have been working in Alabama toward simplifying our minimum standards.

Recording of Plats

I want to go on record as not being in favor of recording all survey plats, although subdivision plats need to be recorded. I am registered in a state that requires recording of all plats. When you go to file a plat a clerk will look over your plat and require changes to the information, which requires a return trip to the courthouse. In some cases the plat needs to be a different size than provided to the client. This means you have to have two plats, the one the client requested and the recorded survey. Also, you’ll often get some courthouse employee telling you what constitutes a good survey. Who is going to pay for this extra work? Another problem is that surveyors give up copyright to their work. Anyone can come into the courthouse and get your plat, maybe for a real estate closing. I was told in one state that an attorney with a copy of minimum standards would go into the courthouse and compare the plat with the standards and contact the property owner about suing the surveyor for an incomplete job. I don’t think we need to go there.

Continuing Education

All states have continuing education. The question on this subject is whether it should be mandatory. Some of the mandatory states require pre-approval of the courses. Other states ask the professional to use judgment and take courses that will improve the education of the surveyor. In some cases this may be a technical seminar while others may need education in business skills. I know of at least two states that have had surveyors falsify their course records. (Someone told me this recently when I was talking about a course on ethics.) You can’t teach ethics; you either have it or you don’t. Let the professional surveyor take the courses that fill their need. One professional may need an entry-level course in English sentence structure while another may need advanced least squares adjustments. One of these courses may need to be taken at a junior college, while the other may need to be taken on-line from a university survey program.

It is hard to get approval for all these different types of continuing education. Ninety-nine percent (or more) of surveyors will be honest and do a credible job of keeping up with their education; the remaining group will not do right no matter how many laws or rules are passed.

Four-Year Degree

Please allow me to go on record as being for a four-year degree. The money I earn from teaching seminars goes to putting my four children through college or for historical research. But I see a problem developing in the next 10 to 20 years that will have a gigantic effect on the surveying profession: the lack of registered surveyors. Many of the states do already or will soon enough require a mandatory degree to take the survey exam. The few states that have a mandatory degree in effect have seen an alarming drop in graduates who qualify to take the exam. While the survey programs think they are doing great, most graduates go into governmental service and very few are left to replace retiring private practice surveyors. If there are not enough registered surveyors in the future, the danger is for state legislative bodies to allow engineers to do survey work. Engineering and surveying today are two different and distinct fields of study. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Milt’s Solutions

Anyone can highlight problems. What our profession needs are solutions. I want to give you my ideas on what we need to do. Remember the idea for registration is to protect the public. Protecting the public should translate into an adequate, cost effective and timely survey product.

Minimum Technical Standards
I am in favor of concise, result-oriented standards, with the requirement that all surveyors have a contract with their clients. If a surveyor repeatedly fails to survey within the standards, we don’t need them in the profession.

Recording of Surveying Information
I am in favor of recording survey corner information with the information available on the Internet. In GLO states, this means all corners originally set by the government surveyors. This could be expanded to include other corners such as center of section and 16th corners. An excellent example is the state of Florida system found at In metes and bounds states, records of who performed a survey in a certain area could be available by latitude and longitude on the Internet. This would allow a surveyor to contact the other surveyor for a copy of the plat.

I am not against doing work outside the normal 40-hour workweek, but maybe some of the existing companies need to expand their options. The problem is doing a survey for less than the accepted price. That is working cheap. I heard a client say recently that he wanted a cheap survey, not one of those “go to court surveys.” Many times the surveyor is doing part-time work and does not take the time to go to the courthouse to do the necessary research. Maybe a part-time surveyor needs to take time off from his or her regular job to do the courthouse research. He or she would then find he or she does have overhead and liability. There is only one class of survey: charge the going rate and do a “go to court survey.”

Continuing Education
Yes, I am in favor of mandatory continuing education. This is the only way to level the playing field for all registered surveyors. I do not see the need for pre-approval of all courses. Let us in the profession be the professionals we are!

Four-year Degree
I am favor of the four-year degree, but I am also concerned about the fact that we are not graduating enough surveyors and that there will be a shortage of people available to take the survey exam.

I see two options. The first is to increase scholarship money to attract new students. The problem with present scholarship programs is that most are set up to only fund scholarships from interest earned. The second problem is that we only give third and fourth year students small amounts of help. The scholarships we now fund are almost an embarrassment and will barely buy books for a complete year (remember I have children in college, so I know what it costs). We need meaningful scholarships given to high school seniors to enter surveying programs, to the tune of about $5,000 per year. The money needs to come from companies on an annual basis with the total amount spent for scholarships. Just think what we could do with $500 from each survey company per year. Can we afford to do it? Can we afford not to do it?

If we find that we do not have the needed people in the profession, then maybe, just maybe, we need to back up and let people with a survey associate degree take the exam with the right amount of additional experience. Some of the best land surveyors whose work truly protects the public do not have a four-year degree.

Last Thoughts
Remember I started this column by asking the question, “Are we in danger of over regulating ourselves?” The answer is yes; maybe more in some states than others.

But the real question should be, “How do we keep this from happening?” In any new legislation you should hold it up to the mirror and see if it is truly a protect the public issue. In most states one strong person can push forward legislation that is well meaning but is not the answer to certain problems. Review what other states are doing. I suggest a panel of past presidents of the state societies review all legislation.

OK, so there you have it. I have shown you my hand. Can I see yours?