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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

Point to Point: Forward-thinking Boundary Retracement Print E-mail
Written by Joel Leininger, LS   
Wednesday, 30 May 2007

A 371Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Reduced to the absolute core and stripped of all the baggage we have picked up along the way, surveyors answer one basic question for society: Where?

"Where is my property line?" "Where should the footing be placed?" "Where is the limit of this restriction?" The complexities of accurately answering those questions (and the questions that naturally flowed from those answers) set practitioners apart from the general public. This has been true since time immemorial.

Consider what the Roman statesman Cassiodorus (490-585A.D.) wrote with respect to our predecessors: "The Professors of this Science [of land surveying] are honoured with a more earnest attention than falls to the lot of any other philosophers. Arithmetic, Theoretical Geometry, Astronomy, and Music are discoursed upon to listless audiences, sometimes to empty benches. But the land surveyor is like a judge; the deserted fields become his forum, crowded with eager spectators. You would fancy him a madman when you see him walking along the most devious paths. But in truth he is seeking for the traces of lost facts in rough woods and thickets. He walks not as other men walk. His path is the book from which he reads; he shows what he is saying; he proves what he hath learned; by his steps he divides the rights of hostile claimants; and like a mighty river he takes away the fields of one side to bestow them on the other."

Good stuff. But, at least with respect to some of our services, the times they are a-changing.

In my last two essays I explored the changes upon us wrought by technological advancements, primarily GPS-driven machines and readily-available satellite data. Together, they represent a threat to the majority of work now offered by many survey firms (and survey departments of multi-disciplinary firms). I would be remiss if I did not address the impact of technology on the centerpiece of our contribution to society: boundary retracement. At first glance, it would seem (and, in fact, has seemed to some observers) that GIS data concerning property boundary location coupled with GPS retracement would eliminate the need for professional surveyors. Think of it: precise data documenting precise locations, recovered using automatic equipment. The core question is answered, and without hiring the guys with the tripod.

What's Not to Like?
The central, irreplaceable element in the new technologies is reliable data. Without data as to what the finished terrain must look like, machine control instrumentation is merely an expensive decoration on earthmoving equipment. Omit the finished model and the technique runs aground (no pun intended). Equally as important, there can be only one model designated as the finished product. Supply two or more overlapping models and the equipment cannot function (or will produce unpredictable results). Similarly, designers who attempt to use two sets of satellite topography on the same project are likely in for annoyances when construction begins, because anomalies resulting from the juxtaposition of the disparate sets of data will inadvertently be incorporated into the design. The design, then, will not anticipate the actual site conditions.

Machine control does work, however, because the destination model is a creation of the designer. It is not his opinion as to what might be, it is his direction as to what must be. Therefore, in carving the earth in accordance with the model, the equipment is carrying out the designer's directions.

Property Data
But how about the data as to existing property boundaries? Where does that come from? In a nutshell, the difference between boundary data and nearly everything else represented in a typical GIS is that boundary data represents someone's opinion, the distilled result after correctly considering perhaps hundreds of years of evidence in light of relevant law. Or not. And there lies the problem. It also could be someone's half-hearted attempt to enter a deed description into the system by just taking raw courses and distances from the current deed and rotating the resulting figure such that it butts up against its neighbors. (The latter is more likely, given the budget pressures on GIS departments.)

In this instance the technology does not fail us; the lack of reliable, off-theshelf data fails us. Does that mean that retracement surveyors cannot enjoy the fruits of new technology? Of course not. But I don't see fundamental shifts coming in our thinking with respect to boundaries.

For reliable off-the-shelf boundary data to be routinely available to retracers, either a massive ­ binding on property owners ­ resurvey of all properties would be required, or the discarding of most of settled boundary doctrine. Cost would dictate that the latter be implemented.

Some years back I wrote about the push in some quarters to abandon evidentiary retracement in favor of purely mathematical approaches. I pointed out then the ripple effects that would accompany such a move, such as the elimination of adverse possession and prescription, senior and junior rights, the rules of construction, etc. A wholesale amputation of large parts of real property law would be required in order to effect that plan, and I don't see that in the cards. Nor, frankly, should we want that to happen.

Here We Go Again
And yet, some continue to see it as inevitable. Of course it is possible for us to convince society that some of retracement doctrine should be dropped in favor of automatic methods, since we are, after all, to whom society has delegated retracement responsibility, and the ones routinely called-upon to opine on the "true" locations. Society, rightly, would assume that we knew what we were talking about. I can't think of a single reason why we should do so, however.

The better of these options is to recognize that some tasks are not suitable to automatic solutions. And that's all right.

Joel Leininger is a principal of S.J. Martenet & Co. in Baltimore and Associate Editor of the magazine.

A 371Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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