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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

The Curt Brown Chronicles: Brilliant Boner Print E-mail
Written by Curtis M. Brown, PS   
Saturday, 04 January 2014

A 138Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

December 1962, March ­ June 1963
Boners in legal descriptions may be classified as careless or brilliant. Omission of words, misspelling, and errors in grammar or punctuation are needless, careless mistakes. But upon occasion, a man, after due and careful deliberation as based upon a little knowledge, comes to a brilliant but quite erroneous conclusion. This type of error requires considerable thought and effort to achieve the obviously impossible.

The following legal description, appearing on a mortgage and supplied by W. B. Williams of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was to be surveyed by his office:

West Front Right Left 1/2, South West Front Right Left 1/4 extending Commencing at Southeast Corner thereof Thence West 439 feet, thence North 550 feet, Thence East 183 feet, Thence North 769.5 feet, thence East 86 feet, Thence North to East & West line, Thence East 165 feet, Thence South to beginning & extending West 660 feet of North 875 feet. of South 2035 feet & extending Comm at Southwest corner of Section Thence East 693 feet Thence North 440 feet Thence West 420.75 feet Thence North 320 feet Thence 272.25 feet Thence South 760 feet to beginning. Section 19 (Township and Range deleted by request).

Is there any surveyor who could locate the property? Is it a valid mortgage? The document from which it was taken was a tax deed, abbreviated in the following form.

WFRL1/2 SWFRL1/4 ex com at SE cor thereof, th W 439 Ft., th N 550 Ft., th E 188 Ft., th N 769.5', th E 86', th N to E & W 1/4 line, th E 165 Ft., th S to beg & Ex W 660 Ft of N 875 Ft of S 2035 Ft & Ex com. at SW cor of Sec., th E 693 Ft, th N 440 Ft, th W 420.75 Ft, th N 720 Ft, th W 272.25 Ft., th S 1160 Ft to beg. Sec. 19

Obviously, the writer knew that the tax deed was an abbreviation, but he did not know the meaning of the abbreviations, nor did he have the slightest knowledge of legal description terms. But he was willing to guess. This is again proof that surveyors ought to be the ones authorized to prepare descriptions.
—Curtis M. Brown

Neither do we!--Editor

L. W. Mahone* Re: "Brilliant Boner,"
Surveying and Mapping, December 1962, Vol. XXII, No. 4, page 635:

There is no question but that the surveyor should prepare the description. Also, the description on the mortgage is utterly ridiculous. Whether or not this would invalidate the mortgage, I will leave to the legal profession. However, the description as contained in the tax deed (it could be better arranged) is quite understandable, and I had no trouble in plotting it. Being in Section 19, and hence on west side of township, it is natural that the SW 1/4 of section would be fractional. The notation is a little unusual but evidently, the description refers to the fractional west half of the fractional quarter. The description refers to all that is left of this tract after the exceptions have been eliminated. I do not believe I would have any trouble locating the ground, which the description covers.
* Professor, Department of Civil Engineering,
University of Arkansas,
Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Lambert North
Under Brilliant Boner, December issue, apparently the abbreviations of the tax assessor are not common knowledge of all. The questionable abbreviations were: The WFRL means the West Fractional Lot. The SWFRL means the Southwest Fractional Lot. The ex com at SE cor thereof means Except: Commencing at the Southeast corner thereof. Tax abbreviations are not uniform throughout the country, but a person with experience can usually figure out the logical meanings. Tax descriptions are merely for the purpose of identifying land being taxed; they are not for the purpose of providing an accurate description of the land.

Tax abbreviations are not uniform throughout the country, but a person with experience can usually figure out the logical meanings. Tax descriptions are merely for the purpose of identifying land being taxed; they are not for the purpose of providing an accurate description of the land.

A question commonly asked arises from this situation: A deed commencing at a certain corner must be surveyed relative to "Astronomic North." Nearby the corner is a control monument whose grid coordinates are accurately known. From the control monument, a second control monument is visible, and the grid bearing is North 10° 28' 32" East between them. The correction to change "grid North" to "North" is minus 0° 28' 21" for this longitude. The bearing between the control monuments relative to "North" is then North 10° 00' 11" East. Does this line, using North 10° 00' 11" East as a bearing, form a satisfactory basis of bearing for the deed?

The question is not simple to answer. Stated in another way the question is, "Are Astronomic North and Geodetic North the same at a given point?" Technically, the two are rarely identical and occasionally the difference between the two is significant.

The reason for the difference between the two directions is understood when the difference between the geoid and the spheroid of computation is explained.

The surface of the geoid is everywhere perpendicular to the pull of gravity. If for any reason the direction of pull of gravity is deflected, the geoid will have an irregular shape. For this reason the geoid is not used to compute geodetic positions (it is used for leveling).

Instruments used by surveyors depend upon the pull of gravity. A level line of sight is parallel with a bubble, said bubble being at right angles to the direction of gravity. If for any reason the pull of gravity causes a deflection in the plumb line, as, for example, by the pull of a nearby mountain mass, the level line is also deflected. Since the computation to determine astronomical direction depends upon a measured vertical angle determined relative to gravity, any deflection of the direction of pull of gravity (deflection of plumb line) will cause a change in astronomical direction.

Geodetic positions are based upon a mathematical figure (spheroid) that is made to fit, as nearly as may be, the average shape of the earth (Clark's spheroid of 1866 as used in U.S.A.). Local variation in the direction of pull of gravity does not alter the mathematical shape of the spheroid.

The direction of North relative to the spheroid is not necessarily dependent upon the pull of gravity at the station; it can be computed from distant stations where the plumb line is not deflected.

The question resolves itself as to what surveyors did when they wrote deeds and made surveys; did they determine directions from astronomical observations (sun or star) or did they use geodetic directions? The answer is obvious; excluding magnetic observations, in the past astronomical bearings have practically always been determined. But there are exceptions, and in the future the exceptions will probably become more commonplace. In Alaska much of the land is being protracted as based upon geodetic monuments. Does this not imply geodetic directions?

Any deed written with a State Plane Coordinate System as the basis of bearings is indirectly using geodetic directions. The positions and directions for State Plane Coordinates are derived from geodetic positions and directions.

How much difference is there between a given geodetic direction and an astronomic direction for the same point? I have been told that the average is about three seconds. But where a survey is adjoining a large mountain mass, it may be considerably more (up to about one minute).

This question of basis of bearings is always related to the written intent of the parties to a deed. Sometimes magnetic north is implied and other times "true north" or "astronomic north" is implied. Since the adoption of the State Plane Coordinate Systems, some deeds have a written intent to use grid north (mathematically related to geodetic north). In some areas the subdivision laws require the usage of State Plane Coordinates and the bearings are related mathematically to geodetic bearings.

Deeds should be on the same basis of bearings, and most surveyors are agreed that grid north, in accordance with adopted State Plane Coordinate Systems, should be the basis of bearings.

A friend returned to see what progress a sculptor was making and observed that little was done. The sculptor remarked that much was done; he had improved this place, he had changed the expression in the face, the hair was touched up, etc. The friend remarked that these were unimportant trifles. The sculptor replied that trifles made perfection, and perfection was not a trifle. The point discussed is often a trifle of only academic importance.

Here are two trifles that require some thought. Who has the right answer?

1. If a person owns all the way to the center of the earth, and if there is no deflection of the plumb line, would his ownership extend in the downward direction of a plumb line located at the earth's surface?

2. If a person's rights extend "up" vertically from his surface holdings, how far is "up"? (If you want to let your imagination run wild, there are a lot of possible answers. The practical answers are much more limited).
Author Michael Pallamary has compiled the writings and lectures of the late Curtis M. Brown. These works are published in The Curt Brown Chronicles.

A 138Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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