October 2006
After reading the letter from Chad Howard in the October 2006POB, I thought that I would relate my experiences in this matter. I spent 35 years in the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) retracing highway right of way, so I can understand how private land surveyors can get frustrated when they try to do it. I encouraged private surveyors to visit my office to check my files before they went out in the field. My region spread over six counties and included 1,200 miles of state highways. (This meant 2,400 miles of boundaries.)

The first thing that I would do was to tell them how NOT to locate the R/W:

Do not measure from the center of the paving. It was done after the R/W was acquired and may have been widen-ed or realigned.

Do not measure from the monuments in the paving. They are set during construction and are on the paving centerline.

Do not measure from the boundary fence. It is offset from the true boundary.

Do not measure from "R/W monuments." The R/W may have moved since they were set.

The only way to do it is to obtain the documents by which the R/W was acquired and use those to retrace the R/W. These documents may be warranty deeds, quitclaim deeds, judgments, easements, permits, dedications, plats, tax deeds or mutual benefit agreements.

When [R/W retracement] involved the interstate system, we had good maps showing the R/W baseline and boundaries and the documentation as to how the R/W was acquired. However, the secondary highway system was a different matter. Most of these had previously been county roads that were transferred to the state system at various dates beginning in 1920. The R/W width varied from 40 feet to 60 feet to 80 feet depending on the territorial or state law in effect when they were established. When the highway was transferred, the counties were also supposed to transfer all of the documentation regarding the highway (R/W maps, deeds and paving plans).

The R/W boundaries may have been defined by station and offset from a baseline, by a section, quarter section or sixteenth line, meander line, Indian reservation boundary, Donation Land Claim line, lot line or railroad R/W boundary.

When I checked [my] region files, I found that, in most cases, all that we had was the latest paving plan before the transfer. [Until] recently, this was all that we required to repave the highway as necessary. Now this is not enough because these quiet country roads are becoming arterials that are inadequate to handle the traffic. [When] improvement is needed, [the following questions must be answered:] Will it fit inside the R/W? Where is the R/W?

I started out on each highway by assembling what was available in the region files. Next, I requested [WSDOT's] real estate section to send me any information in their files. If we did not have first order survey control on the highway, I requested that it be set. This was so the completed R/W could be tied in to the state coordinate system.

Next, [I] visited the county assessor to get a set of their maps. I have found by experience that sometimes the clues are shown on these maps. Then [it was] over to the county engineer for copies of their deeds and maps of the highway. "¦Back in my office [I] started putting the jigsaw puzzle together. Going back through the county records until I got to the original establishment sometimes required going through the county commissioner's records. [I laid] out the map and checked the deeds to make sure that I could account for all of the R/W [and] established coordinates for the baseline and R/W boundaries.

[I went on] to the next acquisition and did the same until I had all of the R/W acquired by the county. If I had any gaps, [I had to] find out what happened and try to account for the missing R/W. [Then I] got the computer to plot the alignments and R/W boundaries. [I] determined the base line that I wanted to use and redefined all of the boundaries from this one base line. In the end, I could tell where and when the R/W was acquired and whether it was fee title, easement or permit.

...If there were monuments set by government agencies (NGS, USGS, etc.) along the highway, we would file either a Record of Monumentation with the county engineer or a Record of Survey with the county auditor that showed the station and offset from the base line to the monument. Copies also went to the state's Department of Natural Resources and the county survey section.

My replacement when I retired is also a PLS and is just as dedicated as I was to retracing highway R/W. In summary, it pays off for highway departments to research when and how they acquired their R/W. They avoid getting into legal battles and they help private surveyors to locate the correct highway boundaries.

Brian Cary, PE, PLS

Traversing the Law

October 2006
The article by Mr. Lucas in the October issue was excellent. I know of several surveyors, attorneys and judges who could benefit from reading it.

Barry Savage, PLS

An End to the Pin Farm

September 2006
Where has Alabama been? Most Western states have had a corner record statute since beginning in 1967 to solve the problem just realized in this article.

Paul N. Scherbel
via E-mail

Author Tim Barnes responds:
Let me address the issue in two ways. First, the article was focused on an effort to provide coordinates via GPS and the web as a joint venture between local surveyors and our GIS team to solve a problem for local needs. It was by no means intended to point fingers at the state legislature or to solve all problems associated with the public land survey.

Secondly, Alabama has not awoken from a slumber and "just realized" we have a problem with section corners that was solved 39 years ago by the Western states. Having also lived and worked in the state of Wyoming, I know there are many differences between Western states and other states (notably Midwestern and Southern) with regard to the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). Implying that Alabama (and other states, for that matter) should simply do as the West and implement a corner record statue is an oversimplification of what is a more complex issue in the Midwest and the South. The reasons for the lack of statutes in the Midwest and South can be attributed to the combination of land use, climate, demographics, urbanization, lack of federal administration, politics and, most importantly, the history of the PLSS. For example, a quick reading of how the public land survey was done in the Mississippi Territory would explain a lot.

Let's ignore most of the categories above and boil it down to an even more basic common denominator--money. Most Western states have been blessed with Uncle Sam picking up the cost for surveying the public lands. The vast mineral reserves, grazing rights, water rights and natural preserves in the West have pulled in many a federal dollar for surveying. This goes back to the Homesteading and Mining Laws of 1872, the Desert Land Act of 1877, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, the Grazing Act of 1934 and thus the creation of the U.S. Grazing Service, which in turn merged with the General Land Office to become the Bureau of Land Management still in existence today. Legislative bodies in the West have a far more pressing need to support these efforts than do other states without federal funding. State legislative bodies don't generally go to the trouble to pass legislative actions without funds to actually do the work. Those types of actions are generally left to the unfunded mandates of the federal system.