By Gregory H. Clark, PLS
National Surveyors Week, first proclaimed in 1984 by the President, is celebrated during the week in March that begins with the 3rd Sunday. Several well-known figures of American history were surveyors including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Three of the four presidents carved on Mount Rushmore were surveyors.
Today, land surveying includes various fields of expertise such as geodetic surveying, hydrographic surveying, construction surveying or boundary surveying. The boundary surveyor must have special knowledge of the law and history of the land wherein he works his trade.
At some time in history that patch of land you call home was deeded out of a larger parcel. The larger piece was part of an even bigger tract, and so on. Far back in time we could find the entire world with no boundaries of individual ownership. At one time the land you live on was considered wilderness.
Dividing a larger piece of land into two or more smaller parcels is called a land subdivision. The lines separating the individual parcels are called land boundaries. Land boundaries may be described on paper, marked on the ground, or both. Marking a boundary on the ground is the setting of objects like stakes, stones or other monuments at appropriate locations to make obvious to those in the neighborhood when they are stepping from one piece of land onto the next.
Each land boundary has its own story dating back to its time of creation. If properly monumented on the ground at time of creation, and if the monuments are preserved, the history of that boundary is preserved.
Suppose you own a piece of land and live on the property. It is obvious when someone enters the doorway and into your house that person is on your property. But, exactly where is that line that separates your land from the neighbor?
The deed for a parcel of land often includes a written description of the boundaries around the property. Ideally the written description and the markings on the ground agree, but since we do not live in a perfect world this doesn’t always happen. The accuracy of the description compared with the physical location of monuments set by an original surveyor depends on the technology, methods and standards of land measuring at the time the original survey was performed. Methods and tools available to the modern land surveyor are much advanced compared with a century or two ago. A measurement today between two monuments first set in the ground sometime in the past can be accomplished with greater accuracy than at the time of the original survey. Still, surveyors are aware that every measurement contains error but strive to minimize that error to the accepted standards of the time. Monuments on the ground set and recorded at the time of an original survey are more likely to control the location of land boundaries than the dimensions in your deed.
- “My deed says I own 28 acres”; which may or may not be true.
- “My deed says I own 755 feet back from the road”; which may or may not be true.
Original Surveys & Retracement Surveys
Land boundary surveyors perform two distinct types of boundary surveys known as either an “original” survey or a “retracement” survey. An original survey is the establishing of boundaries on the land for the first time. The original surveyor walked the ground and identified land boundaries with objects such as stones, posts, pins etc. In the process, the surveyor recorded measurements of direction and distance between the objects. The accuracy of those measurements depended on the tools, methods and technology of the time. A deed was prepared which included a description of the relationship of those objects. Perhaps a map was drawn and included with the deed or filed elsewhere.
A retracement survey is the re-establishing of land boundaries first created in the past, which may have been any number of years ago. The retracement surveyor has one primary goal, which is determining the location of those objects on the ground indicating the “footsteps” of the original surveyor. The stone or post or pin mentioned in the records of the original survey controls boundary location. As a surveyor in western Pennsylvania I have found it likely that a retracement distance between objects will be larger compared with the written description from a century ago.
The land boundary surveyor often dedicates much time researching information. Investigation might include chain of title to the subject property and adjoining properties, meeting with local residents in search of landmarks or monuments, or analyzing aerial photography. The surveyor investigates the history of the land to help determine boundaries.
The original surveyor may have been a person with expertise in land measurement employed to subdivide the land, or may have been the parties to the subdivision meeting on the land and together setting stakes (objects) in the ground to delineate new boundaries. Without appropriate measuring tools and methods it is easy to see how distances may have been estimated or stepped off and those numbers written in a deed description regardless of their accuracy.
Today, land subdivisions are often regulated requiring that licensed surveyor’s measure and describe the land. Future retracement surveys of today’s subdivisions will be performed with greater certainty compared with resurveys of subdivisions from the past.
Boundary disputes may arise when monuments cannot be found in their original undisturbed locations. The wood post rots, the iron pin rusts away, the stone corner is hidden by a century of leaf debris, or perhaps the farmer found it convenient to remove a stone set by an original survey and use it as foundation for a corn crib. When the objects defining the footsteps of the original surveyor are lost, determining the true boundary location on the land becomes more challenging.
Protect, Maintain and Perpetuate Your Boundary Monuments
One of the best things a landowner can do to avoid disagreement and dispute with a neighbor regarding land boundary is protect and perpetuate the location of original monuments set on the ground by the original surveyor. Utility companies have been known to disturb corner markers when digging trenches or setting poles in the ground. When clearing land for improvements be sure the equipment operator is aware of any monuments. When acquiring land inquire with the previous owner and neighbors where boundary monuments exist. When passing title to land make sure the new owner is aware of existing boundary markers. A rotting stump may be all that remains of an oak tree boundary monument mentioned in a deed. Before the stump completely disappears it may be wise to perpetuate that location by piling stones or setting an iron stake at that spot on the ground. A stainless steel pin could be driven into the ground where a pipe set 50 years ago to mark a property corner is now nearly rusted away at ground level.
Document any improvement or replacement of monuments with ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs. Write down a few notes describing the changes. Any record of changes to original monuments is useful to future landowners or surveyors. Ideally these records and notes should be recorded in a public office. You, your children, grandchildren, neighbors and other future landowners will benefit from this effort on your part. The goal is to perpetuate and maintain evidence of the spot on the ground occupied by the original monument.
Your boundary is also your neighbor’s boundary. Don’t be shy about sharing with others in your community what you know of land boundary monuments in the neighborhood. Let others know of that stainless steel pin you set at the rusting pipe.
Boots on the Ground
If you engage the services of a land surveyor, don’t be surprised to see him in places that seem to make no sense. What is he doing on the neighbor’s hill a half mile away? When performing a retracement survey, the surveyor may need to travel around a good portion of the neighborhood locating evidence of original monuments. It may be necessary to define the perimeter of the parent tract from which your piece was subdivided.
Before completing a survey, there may be traverse points scattered in places other than on property lines and corners. After completion, the surveyor can then identify those specific marks and stakes on the grounds that indicate actual boundaries. The landowner should meet with the surveyor in the field to walk the newly surveyed boundaries together. Invite the neighbors to join you.
The Undisputable Boundary
Speaking in generalities it would seem anything in the world can be disputed. When referring to land boundaries, it should be essentially hopeless to win an argument that a land boundary is in a location other than as marked on the ground by original monuments. True boundaries are those defined by the footsteps of the original surveyor on the ground evidenced by original monuments.
Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors, an affiliate of National Society of Professional Surveyors, is a statewide professional organization that supports the practice of land surveying. The society focuses on providing education, encouraging legislative involvement, enhancing public awareness, and promulgating ethics of the profession. For information about Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors, visit www.psls.org; for information about National Society of Professional Surveyors, visit nsps.us.com.