What Does it Mean to Survey Property?
I recently posted this question on a message board and received more than a few responses. This was by no means a scientific study, but the resulting comments, many of which strayed way off topic, confirmed what I have already come to realize. The answer to this question lies largely in the eyes of the beholder.
I have literally crisscrossed this country from Holton, Maine to San Diego, and from Tacoma, Wash., to Key West, Fla., talking to land surveyors about surveying. If you ask two surveyors what it means to survey property, you get two different answers; if you ask three, you get three different answers. I could go on, but I digress. I do feel, however, that my travels, my surveying background and my study of the law have put me in a position to make a few observations.
The first observation is that this is not good for the overall profession and may actually be the undoing of the profession as we presently know it. It seems to be common knowledge to those on the outside looking in who have a vested interest in the outcome of surveying activity (landowners, lawyers, realtors, title insurers, etc.) that no two surveyors can ever agree on a corner. There is certainly ample physical evidence that can be found on the ground to back up this statement. (See the photos below and at right.) Depending on the severity of the differences in surveys, these people--especially the landowners--can find themselves embroiled in a lawsuit (or worse) as a result. Land surveying has moved away from being a benefit to the landowner to now being a potential liability. After all, who wants to buy a lawsuit?
The problem, in a nutshell, can be found on page 2 of one of our most venerated texts on land surveying:
In keeping with recent legal decisions, we have somewhat modified some of the terminology. For instance, seldom is the term property line or property boundary used. It is our belief that property rights, including property boundaries, are legal questions and as such are not addressed by land surveyors. Surveyors locate boundaries, or land boundaries or deed lines. They do not and cannot locate property rights.1 [Emphasis in original.]
The problems with this statement are legion, and I could spend the rest of this column going over all of them, but for our present purposes, I will focus on one. It flies in the face of what the courts and the rules of evidence demand of land surveying. It also cuts to the core of my question: What does it mean to survey property? The unwary will read this statement and conclude that the determination of the location of property lines or property boundaries is beyond the purview of the land surveyor.
This statement and others like it are the basis for the idea that the land surveyor’s only obligation is to stake out the client’s deed from the geometry contained in the description. When boundaries are dependent upon the next measurement to come along, land surveyors will always have differing results. Is this what it means to survey property? To simply stake out the geometry in the client’s deed, throwing out endless possible locations for the parties to litigate over? This is certainly acceptable practice in many parts of the country. Some surveyors have actually told me this is what their regulatory board requires of them. The proponents of this type of surveying see boundary surveying as a measurement exercise to be done for the lowest possible price.
In a pure boundary dispute case, however, where the ultimate issue is the location of the property line between the coterminous landowners and two surveyors are in court with two different locations, the only line that matters is the “property line.” And the terms “property line” and “property boundary” are used all of the time, contrary to what we are being told. How precisely you made your measurements or how tightly you ran your closure are almost irrelevant. Measurements, in the final analysis, are merely evidence and by no means the best available evidence.
In the priority of things, measurements are generally subordinate to natural monuments, artificial monuments and calls for adjoiners (often seen by the courts as a type of monument). Oral testimony and long-held occupation will trump measurement evidence and answer the location question in most instances. A judge sitting on a bench with jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter can determine what the property is and where it is located without any surveying measurements whatsoever. Surveyors are not necessary to the settlement of a disputed boundary. This should be another warning to the land surveying profession. Ultimately, our services are not necessary, and most of the services we provide can be provided from other sources.
The second observation I’ve made is that landowners think we are surveying property. Land surveyors like to think that nobody understands what we do or how we do it. We are basically the Rodney Dangerfields of the professions--we don’t get any respect. Actually, most landowners who know anything about land surveying think that when the land surveyor goes to the field, the land surveyor determines where the property lines are located. This is why they react to land surveying activity the way they do, especially when the results of the survey upset the status quo. Consider this example:
The Robertsons then employed another surveyor ... to conduct a complete survey of their property and plot the results. He entered the bearings and distances in a computer plotter and found the line as described in the deeds was in fact about fifteen (15) feet west of the line established by the pins.2 [Emphasis added.]
The Robertsons didn’t ask for a deed stakeout; they asked for a “complete survey of their property.” But they didn’t get that, and once the surveyor told the Robertsons they owned 15 more feet, what did Mr. Robertson want?
Kenneth Robertson, a plaintiff and an appellee, and a grantee of the three-acre tract who is now claiming the erroneous description controls, testified: …
Q: Okay. Now you know, I want to ask you something, Mr. Robertson. I mean, what I hear you saying is that if the legal description in your deed gives you a little more land, then what [your surveyor] says, is what you want. Is that right?
A: Well, what [my surveyor]–according to [my surveyor] here, this is what I should have.
Q: Okay. And even though it goes beyond the pins, that’s what you should have because that’s what it says in the deed?
A: I should have on--what my deed says is what I want, and [my surveyor] has got it marked here right, and that’s what I want and that’s all, that’s it.4
Robertson’s 3 acres were originally cut out of a larger tract. Robertson and his grantor set the pins for the 3 acres, walked the boundaries at the time of the conveyance and accepted the pins as the limits of the property that was sold to Robertson. A surveyor was subsequently hired to describe the property, and he made a mistake, causing the description and the measurements it contained to be, as the court put it, “erroneous.”
The surveyor later hired to do a “complete survey of their property” misdiagnosed the condition of the patient (made decisions based on the lowest form of evidence, i.e. measurements, because no other evidence was gathered), wrote the wrong prescription (computer plotter survey), and killed the patient as a result (sent all of the parties to court, wasting tens of thousands of dollars). But as long as the surveyor had a north arrow on his map and met the applicable closure ratio, the rest is irrelevant.
Our surveying standards are a major part of the problem. I do not claim to have read every set of standards that are out there, but from the sampling I have read, they are all the same. They are not professional standards of practice, even though some of them claim that title. They are all technical standards written for technicians. They are all focused primarily, if not exclusively, on measurements and the results of measurements.
Measurements are not needed to resolve a boundary problem and neither are surveyors. The land surveying profession needs to wake up before it’s too late and we all become irrelevant.
What’s that clicking noise I hear? It’s the sound of 400,000 GIS’ers putting property line information into their systems.
Neither the author nor POB intend this column to be a source of legal advice for surveyors or their clients. The law changes and differs in important respects for different jurisdictions. If you have a specific legal problem, the best source of advice is an attorney admitted to the bar in your jurisdiction.
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Robillard, Walter G., Donald Wilson, Curtis M. Brown, Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location, Sixth Edition, 2011, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, at 2.
- Harris v. Robertson, 813 S.W.2d 252, 253 (Ark.1991).
- Ball never told Robertson he owned 15 more feet, or if he did, it wasn’t mentioned in the decision. In Robertson’s mind, however, he might as well have because that’s what land surveyors do. They determine where the property lines are located. This is not an isolated case. I have dozens more where this one came from.
- Id. at 255, 256.