Surveyor's Footsteps: Hide and Seek is No Fun for Surveyors
Have you found a pin and wondered if the surveyor who set it was playing Hide and Seek? Recently, I found a pin in the deep woods, and such was the case. Once I had dug it up, I was astounded because it was obviously recently placed.
When I have trained people about setting corner pins, I was probably repeating what party chiefs and land surveyors taught me. After 10 or 20 years of land surveying, a party chief knows quite a lot about many aspects of land development and subdivision. It can be difficult for seasoned land surveyors to actually recall where they learned the knowledge and wisdom incorporated into everyday surveying. The following comments about placing pins and monuments are probably not my own, but I believe they contain prudent ways of marking properties.
There are times when I have found a property corner in the woods and had to dig up the pin since it was probably originally set at ground level. After 10 years of leaves and the formation of topsoil, the pins had become an inch deep. I instruct people to set pins in areas where they are not a trip hazard so that they can be left up a few inches. This allows for those people to find pins in the future. We all know that flagging and stakes might disappear overnight, or last a few years. Whatever your local statute of limitations may be, over at least that period of time you want those who follow to find your points first and hold them.
I have run across surveys where wood hubs were set for property corners. This practice may indicate that the surveyors are not looking to stand by their work. The worst case I have seen was the boundary for the large farm that adjoined the property I was working on. The hubs were probably a year old, grey and weathered, so I knew the surveyors were not coming back to set monuments. Why bother setting anything at all except that they could show “HUB SET” on the drawing? Had I arrived a few years later, the hubs would have rotted away completely.
When setting monuments, I suggest field crews set them flush with the ground in lawns and leave them up a few inches or more in wooded areas. If they are next to a fence post or other object that is tall and protective, they can be left up a little higher.
The object of our work is to mark the property corner. The secondary object is for other land surveyors to easily find the pin we set, so they can measure to it and come to the conclusion that our pins are correct. Should another surveyor miss our pin, he or she might end up finding conflicting evidence we have ruled out and decide they like that evidence. That could result in phone calls, field meetings, or a not-so-fun time in court.
You do not want to leave a monument or pin at a height that a lawnmower may hit it with the blades. When a landscape crew hits one of our survey corners, be it a pipe or pin, it will damage the mower blade. There are sheer pins and metal keys on the engine crank shaft that will break, and the landscapers will most certainly decide it is the last time that will happen, so the pin or pipe is pulled and thrown in the nearest ditch. I have seen pins they did not pull, as evidenced by the bend of their shaft and the deep cut in the metal. Anyone using that pin knows it is plus or minus a tenth or two. Those pins were either left up too high or the ground eroded and left them waiting to be struck.
There will be times when you find existing monuments and hold them as correct, but they are too deep. You could set a pin at surface level, and put on the stake you set to mark the pin: “PIN SET OVER EXISTING MONUMENT.” This may or may not be clear to the neighbor, and you will have explained it to your client, but if the corner is disputed the next surveyors will know what you have done. They may take the option to dig up the old monument and see its type and condition, so they can compare it to other markers in the vicinity.
A better solution would be to use Vise-Grips or channel lock pliers and pull the marker up and pack it tightly in place. When people see a rusty old marker, it carries weight. If it has existing flagging but is deteriorated, you can wrap your flagging around the old flagging. Preserving the old flagging will help anyone who sees it to recognize it was a found marker. You will not be asserting to have set it correctly; you will instead be asserting it was found and is correct. That means two surveyors agreed on its location.
When entering the field and beginning to search for monuments, I will certainly locate pins recently set, but I then want to find the monuments that previous surveyors used to determine the location to set the new point. I need to know why they concluded the pin was to be set as they did. So, initially, I think of them as not even existing. Being that they are visibly “new,” I should be able to see the places where the existing monuments were found and possibly marked. It is sort of the opposite of innocent until proven guilty.
There are many ways to set a pin incorrectly without the aid of a land surveyor. You simply need the right materials, those being whatever is common in the area for surveyors to set.
A land surveyor once told me of a conversation he had with another surveyor who exclaimed that, on a recent survey, he found nothing to work with in the area, so he just used the cyclone fences for an urban lot and could fit the deed measurements around the fence. He set his pins using the fence as his monument. I realize that, in some cases, one might feel the need to resort to using a fence, but not in that particular area. I would add that surveyor did not own a pin finder.
When possible, your pins, pipes, cut marks, drill holes, mag nails and concrete monuments should call out loudly, “Here I am!” Except in specific instances, you want to tell the world, “The corner is here.” So, what might those conditions be?
I have had property surveys where I found that my client’s drive, walks or fences were constructed partially or completely on the neighbor’s lands. I am to protect the interests of my client without being incorrect or faking the facts. So, I might set some hubs flush with the ground and paint their tops so the client can find them. If they are shown or told that the hubs are approximately so many feet apart, then they can be found when desired without alerting the neighbors to the boundary issues.
On one such survey, I set mini mag nails in the driveway with very tiny pieces of pink flagging. The owner could find them because I showed them the location. When setting nails along a property line and in blacktop, I like to set them along the faces of the buildings extended to intersect the property line. Then, the owner can line up the building and find the mark.
There will be those times when you stake a property line and the client thanks you and asks you to remove all of your stakes. Those clients pay the bill, but would rather continue to use the part of the lawn they are mowing, even if it is the neighbor’s. We are not hired to alert the world to our client’s problems unless they pose a threat to the public health and welfare. Even then, we must tread lightly.
I suggest that, until the job is completed, party chiefs should not make any declarations. Because land surveying is not an exact science, we could tell a neighbor or the client, “The corner is here,” and then find conflicting evidence in the process and rethink our marks.
It is embarrassing to paint marks and then try to erase pink enamel. Reserving paint to the last minute gives us every opportunity to find our errors before highlighting them. You performed your survey correctly, did the proper research, and made correct decisions. Therefore, when you set your permanent corners, be sure that you have made them to be found.
A party chief who worked for a former employer of mine in the Kansas City area was sent to mark a property line to resolve a dispute. The client’s neighbor was building a block garage, and it was well over the property line, perhaps by four feet. I am not sure about the exact amount, but it was substantial. The police had been called in and all parties were present. The client said, “I want you to paint the property line on this garage wall.” Once the line was painted, the angry customer used a large sledgehammer and began to tear the wall apart on his side of the line. The police said they could do nothing; the surveyor was there and had marked the property line. The neighbor was furious as large chunks of block flew apart.
Hearing the story, I was glad it had not been me doing the stakeout. I assume that day the party chief made some very detailed field notes. The half-torn-down garage would highlight the survey marks, and this one would never be a case of Hide and Seek.
Jeffrey P. Turner, PLS, began his career in surveying in 1971 and became licensed in Pennsylvania in 1987. He was co-owner of a surveying firm for six years before launching his own firm in the Philadelphia region in 1995. He is passionate about leaving footsteps for future generations of surveying professionals. He can be reached at email@example.com.