Over the years, I have met quite a few impressive Pennsylvania surveyors. One in particular retired more than a decade ago, and as I remember it his attorney advised that he destroy all his records and plans. His lawyer’s logic was they could only serve to create trouble for him in retirement. Should anyone question his work in the future, these files would serve anyone challenging things he had done. Not having the plans and files could be prudent. Frankly, I don’t know if this was good or bad thinking as far as the individual retired land surveyor.
Generally, when preparing to survey a property an effort will be made to obtain information to help in the process. This can take the form of the deed for the subject property, deeds for adjoining lands, subdivision plans, a title report, highway plans, a tax map and aerial photos, among other items. One could think of it as “fishing.”
In reading the deeds, when the caption portion of the deed description calls for a plan, it’s good to try to obtain a copy of said plan. This is not always possible but it is advisable to try. Past practices of some firms in writing deed descriptions would be to mention a plan made by Black and Oak Survey Co. but often did not include the date, or for whom the plan was prepared. While this may have been a great reminder for that company, it does not help other surveyors when they call to ask for a courtesy copy of the plan. This rough patch on the road to information need not be a dead end, but the absence of details does not help.
I remember phoning one surveyor for a plan that was called for in the deed and he informed me, “We threw out all those old plans, but most of them were recorded.” This happened due to the space required to store those plans. I wish “most of them were recorded,” but that is not necessarily true. Often, it was the obligation of the subdivider or the owner of the land to follow through with recording plans. This is sometimes true of the monuments and corner pins, which were noted on the plans as “to be set” but the surveyor was not instructed or paid to set them so they were not placed.
When I phoned another survey company in my area, their office manager, a very helpful fellow and friend, informed me that except for a few townships, all plans were thrown out. Having worked there and searched for plans to give to crews, I was stunned. I wished that I would have known and could have offered to store them at my facility. I do understand they had a space problem, but it is still a loss for us all. As far as I know, the aforementioned companies destroyed their plans solely due to the lack of storage space.
It seems tragic to think that in the age of pen and ink there was respect for the records, but in the digital age they somehow could be thought worthless. Had we not entered the age of disk storage and hard drives and now the cloud, I believe those record owners would have still thought of the plans as money in the bank and part of the company treasure.
Recently I phoned another surveyor and asked for a plan drawn by a surveyor who at the time of the drawing in the 1980s had just gone into business. From that time to the present, he took on a partner, and then retired and sold his interest in the business to another partner and now golfs and enjoys his family. He, too, is a very good surveyor. I was stunned when they said, “Yes, we have that. Do you want a print or for us to email it to you?” Inside, I jumped for joy and, of course, desired the email copy as then I could make multiple prints and even blow up portions of the plan for my field people to use.
I am not trying to fault anyone for succumbing to storage issues and the high cost of renting space to store old plans. Somehow, one firm found the time, and perhaps technological convenience, to scan their old plans and save them for future generations of surveyors. I would imagine that once scanned, the originals were discarded and backup copies of the digital versions created. In southeast Pennsylvania, courthouses are doing the same by scanning deeds and plans, making them more accessible, although they are still retaining the originals. Being the government they have the funds to secure the past for future generations.
I have been told that in the days before the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors, sharing was not as pleasant as it is today. Some surveyors did not even consider phoning to see if they could get a copy of a plan. A great surveyor explained this while he was impressing upon me on the wisdom of my having recently joined the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors. He also was sure to make clear that he was there to help me in my own business efforts. It has been my privilege to have known him and he did indeed help me by sharing his plans, knowledge and sage wisdom.
It is my hope that all surveyors in Pennsylvania are able to archive their records for future generations. It can take a lifetime to build a business and only one dumpster to haul it away. Perhaps anyone considering destroying their plans because they can no longer provide storage might call around to see if other surveyors are interested in being responsible for their safekeeping. An alternative might be to offer their care to a trusted employee who can charge a reasonable fee to copy them for everyone. I have seen this done for one surveyor in my area.
We spend our lives as record keepers, not record breakers. Speaking for myself, every time I open my old file folder and pull out a plan from another surveyor that is no longer available, my heart says “Thank you!”