What do Surveyors Do?

In this age of intense specialization, the modern surveyor is an anomaly. He (please bear with the gender specific pronoun, I do know several great female surveyors) is one of the most versatile professionals available for hire. For hundreds of years, the surveyor has been the true Renaissance man, well-versed in mathematics, language, science and art. No wonder the Romans elevated the surveyor to the position of one of their religious deities; they created the god Terminus as the protector of property cornerstones and held festivals in his honor each year.

First and foremost a surveyor is a measurer. Using geometry and trigonometry, he measures the land for various purposes. It may be to delineate ownership, to divide parcel crops/pastures equally, to lay out a straight line for roads/buildings or to properly incline water/sewer piping. He must know the capability of his equipment and maintain its accuracy for consistent results. When final requirements exceed that known capability, repetition and the laws of mathematical probability must be used to attain the necessary results. Angular measurements historically have been made by the compass and are referenced to the Earth’s ever-changing magnetic field. Knowing how to compensate for that discrepancy is a very important aspect of modern retracement surveying, especially as nearly all deeds use angles to describe the extents of the originally conveyed property.

This brings us to the role of expert witness. Judge-and-jury decide legal ownership of property, but a surveyor is expected to use experience, training, observation, and knowledge of the law to assist the landowner in determining the property corners. In basic form, a deed description is merely a set of instructions that takes the reader along a path, leading from one corner to the next. If a previous deed description was haphazardly written or the lines incorrectly measured, the surveyor must still find the original corners. If those corners are truly lost or destroyed, he must then apply his professional judgment to determine and monument the original intent of the conveyance. Therefore, his testimony can become a crucial element in any court case deciding the legal status of disputed property.

When deeds are bad or conflicting, he becomes a historical detective. The search is for Truth. Where are the true corners and what evidence is available to help find those corners? Like Indiana Jones searching for a Lost Stone, he pores over old maps and deciphers unfamiliar manuscripts laden with Copperplate-styled characters and composed with Old English spellings and grammar. Each deed is a link in a chain of title, each link containing possible clues as to exactly what was conveyed in the past. There are even times when specific family trees need to be constructed in order to follow complex and/or complicated family transactions and inheritances. When adjoining deeds also show inconsistencies and errors, the entire process can become a jigsaw puzzle where different people made different pieces at different times that may or may not fit together as intended. Often, carefully conducted personal interviews with cooperative locals and their older relatives will lead to evidence not mentioned in current deedwork. Imagine being sent on a scavenger hunt with incorrect and unfinished instructions, too many times this is exactly what a surveyor has to deal with.

Speaking of trees, how many people can differentiate between a red oak and a black oak? When that old deed calls for a black oak near the top of the ridge and there happens to be 15 oaks along that ridge, the surveyor now becomes a naturalist/botanist. Originally called-for tree corners are considered natural monuments (as compared to a man-made rebar or pipe) and have a very strong legal standing in property disputes. It can take a good knowledge of local plant species and the various names given to each over the years to correctly interpret an original Land Grant, and even more so to accurately find those species in the woods.

Finally, the original corners are found and the lost ones are reset, so now what? Enter the author and the artist. Well, more like a narrator, because the surveyor must now be able to clearly explain to others where the property is located. He creates a Metes-and-Bounds description that provides a walking guide to finding each corner. A Report-of-Survey will explain why the property corners are so located. Then, the artist will draw a Plat-of-Survey to graphically show where the corners are located in relation to each other, to neighboring properties, and to other significant objects such as houses, roads and creeks. These writings and drawings need to be very precise and yet easily understood in order to prevent any future confusion as to where the property lies. Now we have a completed survey.

But with computers all we need to do is bring up Google and it’ll show us, right? I hear this so often and it is so, so, absolutely wrong! Computers are great tools that have allowed surveyors to be much more efficient at their work. Gathering information from courthouse research, previous surveys, absentee landowners, aerial photo images and governmental reference services is quicker and easier. But, it still takes the modern surveyor to know what information is required, why it is necessary, where to get it, and how to properly apply the data to solve the complicated problems that stem from land ownership. Obviously, modern technology makes accurate measuring easier and quicker. Again, without knowing what needs to be measured and why, that modern precision may be erroneously used to precisely place monuments in the wrong place. Accurate surveying, even with our modern technology, remains an exercise in multitasking and still requires a person who is knowledgeable, educated, and proficient in a wide range of fields. And that, by the way, comes under the dictionary heading of a Renaissance Man.

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