Every job has its challenges; land surveying is no different. Every day brings different issues to resolve that don’t always respond to quick fixes. However, there are a few challenges that are quite common to the profession, and we would like to provide an overview for your special consideration.
Let’s look at six challenges land surveyors may face on the job.
Time is a common issue for the land surveyor, but we aren’t talking about time management or organizational problems. Instead, the vast amount of time some owners hold rural properties can present a challenge for the surveyor.
In short, a property that has been in a family for generations has undergone changes that are not reflected in the original deed. Old survey stakes and witness trees have disappeared. Riverbeds and streams change channels. The physical evidence upholding the legal land description has simply vanished into the mists of time.
On top of vanished markers, accommodations for neighbors and other understandings that were never formally documented can blur the property lines, sometimes catching the current owners by surprise. Strips of land that have long been in use by everyone around are found to be private property, or a fence has been placed along an incorrect boundary but never corrected.
A new owner comes along and the first survey in decades highlights all the changes. Sometimes the surveyor applies as much art as science in defining the boundaries of a multi-generational property.
Weather and Seasonal Changes
Weather and the changing of the seasons present another challenge. The perfect environment for a surveyor is rarely to be found. Land surveyors could wish that all the trees were bare, the ground clear of snow and leaves, with comfortable temperatures and the right light. You don’t often have this luxury.
- Bright sunshine creates deep shadows, which mask features.
- Rain makes surfaces wet, and even when the rain stops, water drips from the trees.
- The mud that comes with the rain is difficult to walk in while carrying expensive equipment.
- Snow is lovely to look at but disguises property corners, flagging, old fences, and other evidence. It's also challenging to tramp through without slipping and tripping.
- Cold can freeze the surveyor and the lubrication required for the instruments to operate smoothly. Many of today’s electronic tools have listed “usable” operating temperature ranges that don’t always match what Mother Nature makes available.
- Wind intensifies temperatures and makes holding a prism plumb pole steady nearly impossible. It blows objects out of trees and off roofs as well.
- In the fall, the leaves covering the soil obscure in the same way snow can.
- Most seasons boast of at least one allergenic, slowing the work crew with watery eyes and sneezing.
Land surveyors have a hearty appreciation for the perfect spring day that is all too often absent on the date you are scheduled to work.
GIS vs. Traditional Survey Frameworks
The states are still playing catch-up on the technology front. Their surveying frameworks fail to account for modern, GIS-enhanced surveying techniques. With GIS ubiquitous within the profession, the mismatch with old frameworks creates a genuine problem.
If the state in which the surveyor is working has not updated its framework, and if the surveyor uses a geographical information system not recognized by the established legal framework, he or she may not be legally protected or recognized within that state.
However, lawmakers have long been aware of the lack and have worked to build GIS into their legal property surveying processes.
Paper Streets and Adverse Possession
In older neighborhoods, the original developers may have been required to submit a plan for every inch of the property before receiving construction permits according to the legal framework of the time. This practice gave rise to what are now called “paper streets,” or streets that begin on paper but are never built.
After neighborhood development is complete, the developers may not need all the planned streets or alleys, and therefore do not build the roadways as marked on the original plans. Over time, the unused property is often absorbed into one or more homeowners’ property use, without the owners’ knowledge.
Later on, if the city determines to use the property designated as a paper street, property owners may be able to claim adverse possession of these adjacent spaces. Deeds may be altered favorably to allow for the private use of public access roads. It is even possible for a landowner to appropriate a neighbor’s parcels for building construction or other use.
The issue may be detected only when a land surveyor performs a new survey and compares the supposed boundaries to those in the original deed.
The Matter of As-Builts
As-builts are schematic drawings meant to establish a pre-construction record of the size, shape, and placement of structures and improvements on surveyed properties. Unfortunately, building contractors can disregard or modify as-builts during the construction process.
Contractors are typically responsible for incorporating surveyors’ final property drawings into a thorough as-built, but many fail to perform this step. Either they don’t know how to create usable as-builts or believe the work isn’t worth the time. Other contractors fail to understand the requirements of the project or delay the as-built process until construction is complete.
The result is boundary disputes, code violations, and other serious issues. Depending on the circumstances, the landowner may blame the initial surveyor for a contractor's error when problems arise.
Incomplete Model Laws
Most jurisdictions have a broad definition of land surveying. They include almost any mapping or schematic representation activity that occurs on or below the soil. The definition includes man-made as well as natural features that are used to define properties or create representations of mineral extractions.
Some model law frameworks include secondary creation of maps, plats and other post-survey documents as surveying activity. Other model laws may be narrowly defined and limited to surveying activities that can be directly tied to the determination and mapping of property boundaries for the initial establishment of borders. They may not include natural features mapping or underground surveying, which can cause a substantial challenge to the land surveyor in that state.
Either way, the rules defining the surveying trade can conflict with each other and cause misunderstandings between professionals working in different jurisdictions.
Land surveying is a lucrative occupation and rewarding for those who can handle these and other issues. Anyone entering the profession or wishing to advance their career should understand the problems modern land surveyors face as well as solutions available to avoid or mitigate them.