When anybody can be an expert measurer, and the perception is that a GIS map is just as good as a survey, then the land surveying profession as we currently know it will cease to exist. 

Even if technology doesn’t put traditional land surveying out of business (and it will because there is already an app for that), we are fast approaching critical mass where our numbers will get so low we will no longer be able to support what little need there currently is for licensed land surveyors. We all know that nature abhors a vacuum and the void will be filled quickly by GIS.    

Last month I discussed how the land surveying profession needs to move away from the current measurement-centric rubric and embrace our role as the stewards of the nation’s property boundaries, solving people’s problems as opposed to just finding them. This is what surveyors used to do before we decided that our job was to be expert measurers. This is the only reason we are licensed and regulated, to protect people’s property rights vis-à-vis protection of the nation’s property boundaries. It’s also an exclusive niche that should be garnering reasonable if not substantial fees.1 But society doesn’t even know that this is what our job is2 (and too many surveyors don’t know it either), so how are they going to miss us when we are gone? 

Again, when I talk about traditional surveying I’m talking about the only aspect of surveying that requires licensure and that is our relationship with property boundaries and the associated property rights. No other aspect of surveying requires licensure and all other aspects of surveying are currently being performed by others. Even the location of property lines is being determined in paper space by unlicensed GIS operatives. The determination of property lines in dirt space and the rendering of a well-reasoned opinion on the only question we’ve got, the location question, has to be embraced before the need for such services becomes irrelevant or a new regime takes over that function as well.

 

Currently, nobody hires a surveyor to survey property because they are afraid of what they might get. They have already heard that no two land surveyors can ever agree on a corner or that the land surveyor might tell them that their fences are in the wrong place and that they have to move them. Moving fences will be a much more expensive proposition than the cost of the survey. Landowners know that as a result of the survey they could end up in a lawsuit with their next-door neighbor, or worse, an actual shooting war. Just tell Farmer Brown that he doesn’t own what he thinks he owns or that the next-door neighbor is in possession of some of his property and the possibilities for trouble are endless. 

This is one of the reasons we can’t make money surveying property—nobody sees any value in it and some actually may look at a survey as a potential liability, and couple that with the fact that we allow anyone with a license to survey property, competent to do so or not. We license the minimally competent, allow them to go out and mess around with people’s property rights so long as they can run a closure and measure with precision. Let’s not forget they also bid the job at the lowest price because it’s not too hard to slap some math on the ground. Finding where the property lines have already been established on the ground is an irrelevant consideration and, besides, who can spend that kind of time on a boundary stakeout.

 

These are some of the problems with the profession, so what are some solutions? As I said last month and on other occasions in this column, we could easily regulate a fix by simply differentiating between good practice and bad. But we don’t have that kind of time. We would need about half the profession to die off to make any meaningful regulatory changes because some of the worst offenders actually sit on our boards and run our professional organizations. And the future crop of surveyors may not be any better.

From my limited review of what the schools are teaching geomatics students and from my conversations with some of these graduates and teachers from all across the country, the schools aren’t teaching them anything about the boundary establishment doctrines and how to apply them, resolving boundary problems and avoiding disputes, how to be an expert evaluator of evidence as opposed to being expert measurers, alternative dispute resolution techniques, or drafting agreements and contracts. These are some of the tools the practitioner will need moving forward in order to change the dynamic from expert measurer to problem solver. Or, as I put it last month—ensuring the American Dream.

If, however, we could change the practice model and get Innovators and Early Adopters onboard, we could possibly create a tipping point that would get the Early Majority, Late Majority and even the Laggards4  to eventually come over.  

The practice model would look something like what I’m describing below and it doesn’t matter if you are an expert measuring deed-staker or fence-line surveyor extraordinaire, you will end up with the same result, and in most cases you will either have found no problem or resolved any problem you think you may have found. In the worst case you leave them no better or no worse than they were before you arrived on the scene—no harm no foul.

 

Our mantra moving forward as the stewards of the nation’s property boundaries has to be “maintaining the status quo.” In the vast majority of boundary surveying projects I have worked on over a 38-year career, there has been a status quo relative to the property boundaries when I arrived onsite. Of course, there are exceptions to the general rule. Notwithstanding the exceptions, if after the surveyor has performed a survey of a piece of property to the point where the surveyor is ready to make a decision, if that decision maintains the status quo, then simply complete the survey and deliver the map along with an invoice.

On the other hand, if the surveyor feels for whatever reason that as a result of the survey the status quo cannot be maintained, the surveyor must first consult all of the boundary establishment doctrines to see if any can be applied to maintain the status quo. If not, then the surveyor discusses the situation with his client first and explains to the client why a new iron needs to be driven in the ground or the status quo otherwise needs to be upset (and please don’t say because your technical standards are going to make you do it or, worse, the computer told you so). Since this will necessarily involve some other landowner(s), next the surveyor must have a conference with all affected parties and explain to all of them why the status quo cannot be maintained.

There will be three possible results of this conference: (1) the parties agree with the surveyor, (2) the parties disagree and want to maintain the current status quo or (3) the parties tell the surveyor to go away. If either (1) or (2) is chosen, the surveyor’s job then becomes helping the parties memorialize their agreement no matter how much the surveyors wants to hold that fence or drive in yet another iron. If (3) is chosen, then the surveyor goes away. My suspicion is that if surveyors had to do this, no matter their stripe, nine times out of ten the status quo would be maintained by the surveyor without any need for a conference.

A 90 percent success rate would be a phenomenal improvement over the current practice model and would go a very long way toward re-establishing our credibility with the general landowning public. They might actually trust us again with their property interests like they did in Hodgman’s day.

“In an old settled country, the principal work of the surveyor is to retrace old boundary lines, find old corners, and relocate them when lost. In performing this duty, he exercises, to a certain extent, judicial functions. He usually takes the place of both judge and jury, and acting as arbiter between adjoining proprietors, decides both the law and the facts in regard to their boundary lines. He does this not because of any right or authority he may possess, but because the interested parties voluntarily submit their differences to him as an expert in such matters, preferring to abide by his decisions rather than go to law about it.” 5

 

We need some tools in our hands to make this practice model work. As earlier intimated, we need mad skills in alternative dispute resolution and negotiation techniques. How you approach your client with the information you want to share could spell the difference between successfully resolving the perceived issue and starting the war. We need to know all of the boundary establishment doctrines, and how and when they apply. We need standard contracts for performing property boundary surveys, like the architects have, with contingency and termination clauses. When they tell you to go away, that doesn’t mean you don’t get paid.

In addition, and maybe the most difficult tool to obtain, surveyors will need the ability to prepare a few legal documents for people like deeds and boundary line agreements. In most jurisdictions, preparation of deeds especially is considered the practice of the law. But if we want to return to our former role as problem solvers, the role we played before we became expert measurers, we will need these tools and know how to use them.

 There is only one thing that is certain in all of this, if we do nothing then nothing will happen—well, besides the inevitable. If you are happy with the direction the land surveying profession is heading in, then perhaps I haven’t done a good enough job of pointing out the problems. But I doubt that. So if you don’t see the problem, then in all likelihood you are the problem. For the love of this profession you might want to reconsider your perspective before it’s too late.  

Footnotes

1.  I have discussed at length in earlier columns how we have turned a niche service into a commodity to be sold at the lowest price and the simple solution to that problem, but I don’t have the space to repeat all of that now.

2.  It is a sad reality that during my entire career in the land surveying profession (nearly 40 years), we have not been able to put together a simple message that can be articulated in a 30-second radio ad that conveys what we are all about.

3.  If you ever find yourself “staking out” a boundary while ostensibly performing a retracement survey, then you are part of the problem. 

4.  These are terms I referred to last month from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” 2002, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, New York.

5.  Hodgman, F., M.S., C.E., A Manual of Land Surveying, The F. Hodgman Co., Climax, Mich. 1913, at Page 289.

 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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