I’m not a surveyor, but I have spent enough time getting to know surveyors as well as seeing how their work can later affect their clients and their client’s neighbors that it has become clear that there are basically two types of folks producing very different types of surveys. 

Jeff Lucas, PLS, JD – who authors The Lucas Letter [1] and regularly contributes a column to POB [2] – indicates that one type of surveyor does little to nothing more than “slap down the math.” 

This approach is extremely problematic though. The reason is because most people hire surveyors to help them identify what they own. Yet, in many and perhaps even more than a majority of situations the math is inadequate. Simply put, the math doesn’t indicate what people own. Instead it indicates what the law views them being seised (i.e. seized) of as understood by their title documents.

The difference between title and actual boundary lines can and often are different. 

As Jeff has repeatedly attempted to get surveyors to recognize, boundary lines are a mixed question of law and fact. The law considers not only the title information identified on one’s deed or other instrument which transferred ownership, but also other such things as grantor’s intent, use and time of possession (i.e. Adverse Possession [3]), and possibly other equitable considerations to identify where the line is.

The rub is that surveyors who “slap down the math” appear to be safely within the bounds of their duties, whereas surveyors who go beyond this and exert what another surveyor of national stature like Jeff Lucas calls exerting a “Quasi Judicial Function.” The surveyor who champions this view most clearly is Gary Kent and ind doing so he points to Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas M. Cooley’s comments on the subject.

The point being that surveyors have power and I dare say duty to find where the boundaries are … not merely the lines of record title.

So, why isn’t it done. I think the reason is two-fold. One, the idea that ‘good money drives out bad’ is certainly a factor. This is to say that if everyone else is “doin’ it” you should too because the cost to do things correctly will price one out of the market.

The second reason is that surveyors are fearful that they might tread on the ground of lawyers and in doing so be charged with practicing law without a license.

The reality on this last point is that surveyors’ understanding of real property often far surpasses that of the lawyer. While lawyers are still the masters with respect to all the civil and evidentiary “technicalities” which can make or break a case, as to merit surveyors in the main are much more up to speed.

So, as Jeff has been evangelizing across the country at various survey conferences and elsewhere, in order to keep peace between neighbors it is necessary for surveyors to …

(a) disallow surveyors from just “slapping down the math” – that is something which Google Earth appears pretty well able to do now and will be even more able to do in the future as increasingly precise datums come online and instead …

(b) surveyors ought to be allowed to help neighbors work through their problems instead of abdicating this “responsibility” to lawyers who perhaps because they only see conflict as being successfully resolved by litigation essentially see the world as a hammer does … everything is a nail fit to be pounded.

Surveyors if you care about your clients, litigation is the last place you want to see them. At the very least seek to steer them to mediation first before they get going with those who will take them on an expensive tongue dual with their neighbors – litigators who don’t care about your clients [either]. 

[1] To subscribe to The Lucas Letter see [HERE].

[2] Find Point of Begining Online Magazine [HERE].

[3] For a basic post about Adverse Possession see [HERE], then compare that with the 3D model which I have developed to better explain the doctrine to those with a spacial imagination – like surveyors – [HERE].