For the good of the profession

November 2004 » Columns » GEOMATICS
At recent professional meetings, I have been struck by the lack of understanding of the surveyor's role when performing boundary surveys. It is quite common to hear of the use of improper methods.
Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E.

At recent professional meetings, I have been struck by the lack of understanding of the surveyor's role when performing boundary surveys. It is quite common to hear of the use of improper methods, such as ignoring the hierarchy of deed calls.

Seminar instructors point out that even when deed calls are used properly in order of precedence (natural monuments over artificial ones over bearings and distances, et cetera.) to interpret the entirety of the description, mistakes still can occur. Mistakes, for instance, may result from the fact that senior rights can overtake the calls of a junior deed.

Many times, problems arise when the person performing survey functions—often an engineer—knows how to measure a certain distance or turn a certain angle, but is unsophisticated in interpreting a situation that requires an understanding of the deed and its predecessors, the adjoining deeds, the original surveys, the prevailing and prior statute and case law, and the stands of surveying practice over the land's history.

To be sure, there are (and have been) many engineers who have claimed to have delineated property boundaries. Before surveyors became licensed, engineers were the most frequent professionals who evaluated and marked the lines called for in legal descriptions.

Today, however, the task of surveying matters pertaining to property boundaries in the United States is the sole province of licensed land surveyors.

Engineers often are involved in projects where one of the tasks to be performed is a socalled boundary survey. This task is not simply a matter of locating the point of beginning (there's a story in itself) and then measuring distances and angles to lay out the calls in the deed. If that is all there is to being a boundary surveyor, then any engineer who knows how to make accurate survey measurements could indeed do the job.

The reason surveyors are licensed is to protect the public from the problems inherent in our system of buying, selling, and subdividing land. Since there is no restriction on who writes the legal description on a deed or other conveyance of real property, and errors and mistakes have existed and will always exist in the work of even competent surveyors who mark the land in original surveys, there always is the likelihood that the title to the land transferred is not exactly as described in the conveyance—and these uncertainties are not all covered under the topic of "unwritten rights." The surveyor's expertise is required to determine if there is a problem with the description, if, in fact, the description is surveyable as written, and if surveyable, whether a demarcation of those lines results in problems such as so-called gaps and overlaps or encroachments (by the owner of the land being surveyed or by adjoiners).

The surveyor's job also involves marking the lines, assuming that such serious problems are discovered in the survey process that resolution must take place, guided either by the surveyor, lawyers, or the courts.

The problems discussed at professional seminars are good exercises for surveyors because actual situations help them sharpen their skills and provide better services for their clients. It is surprising, however, how often seminar attendees will bring up situations of their own that indicate a lack of consistency in applying fundamental principles of property boundary surveying.

And that leads to what has struck me: The lack of understanding of the surveyor's job often is demonstrated by the surveyors themselves.

There is a lack of consistency in the expertise that is applied to property boundary surveying. The only people who should be recognizing and fixing this problem are the surveyors themselves. And if they don't, then other groups of people—such as legislators, whose understanding of the problem and solution isn't as sharp as those of competent surveyors—will fix it for us.

As a profession, we have many responsibilities.

One of them is to self-regulate. And performing the task of quality control is an essential part of self-regulation. After quality control comes quality assurance, and that is ours to do also. We all know that in states with mandatory continuing education, more surveyors take short courses, seminars, and workshops to better themselves. But we also know that because the surveyors themselves decide which courses to take, an ideal job of matching the courses with each surveyor's needs doesn't occur. Often, the courses taken are simply for the purpose of "checking the box." There also is the problem that courses often are selected without an accurate and unbiased self-evaluation of the course areas and subjects most needed by the professional.

These problems can best be solved by the profession (though not only by the profession).

It takes recognition of the problem and the willingness to acknowledge that things aren't perfect. After periodic re-evaluation, processes need to be put in place by surveyors as a group to improve the quality of the group's services.

This is the single most important job for the leaders of surveyors' associations.

Unfortunately, the process can create emotional reactions that can prevent the best job from being done. As members of these associations, it is our job to understand this need for selfregulation and to be vocal and hardworking in supporting such activity.

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at paiva@cenews.com.


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