As a threshold matter before we can even talk about why land surveying should remain regulated, we have to consider why land surveyors even exist. Whereas at one point in time it may have been for the surveyor’s expert measuring ability, the need for the land surveyor as expert measurer is now gone. With the right tools, and in the very near future that will be a smart phone, anybody can be an expert measurer. See Figures 1 and 2. If it is to stakeout the measurements from the client’s deed relative to some known control points, we don’t need the land surveyor for that either. That can be accomplished in paper-space far easier and with much less cost and mess than can be done in dirt-space by the land surveyor.

No … those days are gone. There is now an app for that. The only way the land surveying profession can distinguish itself from the rest of the geospatial community and not be replaced with an app is to provide services that no one else can provide. Too bad we don’t have an exclusive niche service that no app or GIS’er can duplicate. …

Well—actually—we do have a niche service that nobody else can provide and that there will never be an app for, at least not until they invent professional services robots that can gather and weigh boundary evidence, interview knowledgeable locals about property lines, consider the applicable law against the gathered facts in any given surveying situation and then render a well-reasoned opinion on the only question open to the land surveyor—the location question. And the only reason this is a niche service is because the land surveyor is the only professional licensed and sanctioned by the state, in the first instance,1 to render such an opinion. A judge sitting on a bench or the lawyer sitting in the office, has no such authority.2

Now, I realize that many surveyors are making a lot of money doing other things besides boundary surveying.3 And that’s great and more power to them, but they are not alone in these endeavors, and in many instances, and in a multitude of applications, a license is not required to either acquire survey type data or to use the data however it may have been acquired. The focus of this article is, as the title suggests, to look at the only distinguishing characteristic between the licensed land surveyor and the rest of the geospatial community—all 850,000 of them.

The Current Problem

The problem is that, by and large, surveyors are not fulfilling their obligations towards property boundaries, their duties as stewards of the nation’s property boundaries, the fundamental principles of land surveying, or to the people of the state they are licensed to protect. This has not and will not go unnoticed by people who matter, such as legislators and their landowning constituents. Admittedly, the cases I read about and the problems I hear about are generally the worst of the worst. Sure, I’m not going to read about the success stories. But this should be a sign to all surveyors. I only read about cases where the surveyor came along and upset the applecart and everybody goes to court for an adjudication, which is usually in favor of the status quo, not the upsetting new survey. 

All of this begs a question. If land surveyors are not doing what they have been licensed to do, protect the property rights of the people of the state in which they are licensed, then why do land surveyors need to be licensed in the first place? Put another way, if all surveyors can do is measure expertly or slap some math on the ground and show people what their problems are, why do we need land surveyors to do this? There is an app for that and it’s just as good as some very common surveying results. See Figures 1 and 2.

The Solution to the Problem

Of course the solution to this problem is that the land surveying profession needs to take its responsibilities towards property boundaries more seriously than it ever has in the past. This is the most important work that land surveyors perform because it affects the health, welfare and property of the people surveyors are licensed to protect and this, of course, is the only reason surveyors are licensed, in any jurisdiction. The profession should not allow the minimally competent to perform the surveying equivalent of open-heart surgery. The medical profession certainly doesn’t do this. 

The real difference between the professional service provider and the technician is the application of special knowledge and acquired skills to a given problem affecting people and/or their health, safety and welfare, and rendering an intelligent, well-founded opinion on what the problem is and how to solve it. In any context, the individual can then decide on a course of action based on expert advice.

In the medical context, I imagine (maybe wrongly) that anyone of ordinary intelligence and with ordinary motor skills could eventually be trained to perform the steps to accomplish a heart transplant. No matter how many heart transplants this individual might perform, however, without more this person would never rise to the level of a true professional. The difference being that the professional surgeon could tell the patient what the problem is with the heart before the chest is opened up and be reasonably certain as to the outcome of the operation, all things considered that a reasonably prudent practitioner would consider under like or similar circumstances. The same basic scenario plays out in the lawyer-client relationship.

What about the surveying profession? Are we rendering well-reasoned opinions or are we slapping math on the ground and letting the “chips fall where they may”? Are we performing rote routines that any person of ordinary intelligence could perform with a little training or the right tool? What are we doing that can’t be accomplished with a suitable app? What are we doing that can’t be replicated in a GIS?

Moving Forward

If the land surveying profession, as we currently know it, is going to move forward and remain relevant well into the 21st century it is going to have to embrace its exclusive niche and do such a great job at it that no one would think of replacing it with a new system. Unfortunately, as we are already hearing from several different quarters, there is already a movement underfoot to closely examine the proliferation of regulated professions. A recent Wall Street Journal article4 that has grabbed the attention of many surveyors reports that 5% of all occupations were regulated by the state in 1950. In 2000 that figure was up to 20% and now stands at 23%.

Some of this is coming from a cost perspective and the ability of government to continue to maintain the infrastructure to regulate so many professions. There is also the perspective of diversity, in particular, how many surveying and engineering boards look too white and too male. The above mentioned article focused in on the idea that many of these regulatory boards (the article was specifically about the dentistry board in North Carolina) are filled with members from the profession it regulates and the perception that they are in it to protect the profession and not necessarily the public; dentist looking out for dentist, land surveyors looking out for land surveyors, etc.

All of this brings me to my point. When theses examinations of licensing boards take place, one of the primary questions will be why do we need this profession to be regulated? In other words, is protection of the public necessary in this arena and is it being accomplished? Certainly, one of the follow-up questions will be, what do these surveyors do and are they doing it? This does not bode well for a profession that nobody understands and with a proven track record of actually trampling people’s property rights as opposed to protecting them.

A Deregulated Profession

Imagine a completely deregulated surveying profession. At that point there will be no distinguishing characteristic between what the land surveyor has to offer and what anybody else who claims to be an expert measurer has to offer, other than price. We have already turned our niche service into some of the cheapest services offered in the geospatial community by allowing the minimally competent to perform open heart surgery. When we are deregulated, a survey of your property will be an extra added to your Domino’s pizza order, gathered and delivered by a drone in 30 minutes or less. Want fries with that? 


  1. By this I mean, in the field, on the ground, before any lawsuit is ever instituted. The surveyor’s opinion, of course, is always subject to judicial review assuming the affected parties have the financial resources to do so. In the vast majority of cases, however, they do not. The practical reality is that in most cases, the surveyor’s “adjudication” of the location question will remain unchallenged rendering it a final decision—good, bad or ugly.
  2. The judge’s authority only comes into play after a lawsuit has been instituted and, by way of due process, the judge acquires jurisdiction over the parties. Even then, the judge must also have subject matter jurisdiction in order to adjudicate a boundary line between adjoining landowners. Likewise, the lawyer has no initial authority to render an opinion on the location of property lines. Only the land surveyor is licensed and sanctioned by the state to do this, and only because the land surveyor is deemed qualified through education and experience to be able to do this without trampling the property rights of the citizens of the state. These citizens include the surveyor’s client as well as adjoiners on all sides of the client.
  3. There are self-inflicted reasons for this that could be remedied by the land surveying profession and that I have discussed them at length in this column. I will address those again in the near future but I will not be going over that ground again in this column.
  4. Loten, Angus, Sarah Needleman, “State Licensing Boards Under Fire From Within,” Wall Street Journal, August 2014.

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.