An Open Letter to the President of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors

Updated: August 15, 2016

An Open Letter to the President of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors

WSLS President,

I am a former full time county surveyor and mapper who has been involved in GIS for 30 years. I read your last president? message with great interest.

(This message is no longer available online.)

I have also been following the developments in the State of Wisconsin relative to the statewide parcel mapping initiative.

Thanks to the efforts of the state cartographer’s office, an informative forum was held in March 2015 at UW Stevens Point. You were in attendance. The major announcement heard at that event concerned the misalignment of county boundaries. Boundaries in many areas of the state are not lining up. This is not good, but I felt it was a major announcement of truth.

Priority of County Boundaries

Thanks to a presentation by Bryan Meyer, president of the Wisconsin County Surveyors Association, the audience, consisting mostly of land surveyors and GIS people, was very much convinced county boundaries is now finally a high priority. Eventually, if matching funding becomes available as an incentive, then the state will have its statewide parcel fabric, with some agreement along the county boundaries.

Let’s consider the rest of the parcel fabric within the counties, including any of the 1206 towns, 190 cities and 402 villages in Wisconsin. When will these concerns be addressed, if ever? Unless there is a comprehensive effort to look at all 3,340,000 statewide parcels, then I see this initiative as short sighted. We obviously do not understand the solutions necessary to fully address these vast problems.

I see a tremendous opportunity for professional land surveyors to step forward and make a huge difference for the benefit of the general public we are called upon to serve.

Given that we have 3.34 million jigsaw puzzle pieces that do not fit together well, would it not make sense to consider replatting? We can do so by concentration in cities and villages first to determine with today’s modern technology how these puzzle pieces actually do fit together accurately. Yet, according to the state department of administration plat review section, in the last 15 years, there have only been 140 replats totaling 3,480 parcels. This computes out to be 0.007% per year of the total of all parcels replatted. When we were parcel mapping my entire county, my team came to the simple conclusion on how to address our constant on-going mapping inefficiencies. We felt it would be better just to replat the entire county. At the time, that may have seemed preposterous. However with advances in technology, it now no longer seems that far-fetched.

Myth of Survey Accurate Parcel Mapping

When we were mapping and experiencing ongoing inefficiencies, we had our survey accurate coordinates on the PLSS. Yet the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle would not fit together to any acceptable degree of accuracy. There is a common myth that if a county has survey accurate coordinates on the PLSS, then survey accurate parcel mapping is possible. It may be somewhat improved, but in any given section or quarter section, there are always puzzle pieces that just plain do not make any sense. They do not fit together. There are many reasons for this beyond the scope of this writing. And based upon my experiences, the monetary effort to get the survey accurate coordinates on the PLSS is not worth constructing a partially improved spatially accurate parcel map. The cartoon maps are just fine.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am a strong advocate for remonumentation and survey grade coordinates. But unless there are efforts to field verify parcels, then cartoon maps are fine. More importantly, unless there is a major replatting effort, primarily in cities and villages, then simply go with the cartoon maps. And yes, cartoon maps are better than nothing (or slightly better than nothing).

Every parcel fronts on a transportation corridor (public or private road, or is landlocked). Until there is efficiency in getting this data in digital format and survey accurate, then we will continue to believe the myth that we can have survey accurate parcel maps. Deciphering state, county and town highway plans and their deeds is a major source of inefficiency when parcel mapping. Bryan Meyer answered it best. Put boots on the ground. Land surveyors have the boots, and we are on the ground. With the advances in our technology, the advocates for survey accurate parcel mapping can now begin to use land surveyors in a very efficient manner. But how many counties have elected to do this?

Current Bottom Up vs. Historical Success

I would suggest re-studying how the US Public Land Survey was done long ago in 30 states. There were boots on the ground. Dating back to the 1800’s, this survey is considered one of the greatest public works achievements of all time. One thing is for sure. This major land surveying project did not get completed with a bottom up approach by 1900 counties in 30 states. Some will argue that the counties and states did not even exist then, but I think you understand my point.

This bottom up approach is how the current Wisconsin land information program is supposed to work. Seventy-two counties are making their own unique decisions and sending their data to the state. Can you imagine the US Public Land Survey getting done if the decision was left to 1900 counties.

The US Public Land Survey was a vision of a land surveyor named Thomas Jefferson, who also happened to be the 3rd U.S. president. This survey only happened for one reason. Authority took a top down approach to organize and complete it. Congress ultimately decided to stand behind the concept and they appointed a hierarchal government of land surveyors and contracted surveyors to complete it. Every state appointed a Surveyor General and there was a state surveyor presence in every 1 of 30 states.

In his writing on the history of the US Public Land Survey in 1983, C. Albert White details the specifics. Sadly, you will see C. Albert White documenting the closing of the Surveyor General Offices in all 30 states not long after the completion of the USPLSS. The federal government had a grand vision on how to get this first survey done, but the federal government then chose to abandon it. They concluded that local units of government, i.e. towns and counties, would now pick up the ball with funding and maintenance. In hindsight, that was a poor decision. Equally bad was the closing of every Office of the Surveyor General in 30 states. In Wisconsin we are still reeling from the effects of closing the Office of the Surveyor General (1866) 150 years later. We are still trying to maintain, restore or re-establish something that was ultimately abandoned 15 decades ago.

I have spent a great deal of time writing and reflecting upon my history as a surveyor and mapper. I was also involved with the UW Madison Extension Course “Developing Geographic and Mapping Analysis Systems,” as far back as the 1980’s. I not only spoke on 4 different occasions at this course, I also had the opportunity to see what so many others were doing around the country in addressing these complex issues.

Building a Proper House

Professional land surveyors, mapping and GIS personnel deserve far better than the pittance that has been dealt to us. As Bryan Meyer so vividly pointed out in his presentation last March, how can you build a decent house without the expense of a proper foundation? Everyone builds a house today with a proper foundation. Yet, how many counties have taken the same approach in building a proper land information system? Few if any. Brown County may stand heads above the rest in getting something done properly by utilizing land surveying professionals working with mapping/GIS professionals.

So why only Brown County? Seventy-two county administrators, executives, county boards or committees (non-surveyors, non-GIS personnel) make professional land surveying and mapping decisions. They determine how to do remonumentation, and to what level of accuracy the parcel fabric will be determined. Dedicated professionals like county surveyors and GIS personnel plead their cases in these counties, but the ultimate decision makers and controllers of the funding will not buy it. I know from experience. You can forever educate these non-professionals, i.e. the politicians and decision makers in the counties (and in towns, cities and villages for that matter), but they simply are not buying it.

Need for a State Surveyor

Diann Danielsen, a professional land surveyor and former employee of the State Cartographer’s Office, wrote a paper 23 years ago. She entitled it, “The Need for a State Surveyor.” The WSLS website once published this paper, but now it is gone. I would make this paper and its concepts mandatory continuing education for every professional land surveyor and GIS person in the state. It addresses what we have overlooked for far too long. If we are going to assert ourselves as professionals, and indeed we are, according to recent legislation, then we cannot overlook the fundamentals and principles in Diann’s paper.

What is her most important point? Full time county surveyors are good, decent and dedicated professionals. However, they cannot be expected to fight all the battles on the home front with county decision makers who cannot understand the importance and the fundamentals of what they do. Has there been great success in some counties with full time county surveyors, mappers and GIS people? Absolutely. But how is the State of Wisconsin doing overall? How was it reported at the March 2015 forum in Stevens Point? Overall, the state is doing poorly with non-professionals having the power and making decisions that should only be made by professionals.

The following links prove this point:

How many full time county surveyors are there in this state?

I only consider full time county surveyors to be valid. If there is not a full time county surveyor, then the county has chosen to limit funding and its resources and has allowed only a part time position. Of the full time county surveyors, there are many who are in name only, with no other purpose but to have a title with limited staff, if any. With few resources, they accomplish little if anything. If you count the full time county surveyors fully funded and staffed, accomplishing what the best are doing, the more accurate count is around 18/72 or about 25%. This is a distinct minority. There are 12 counties who have thumbed their royal noses at professional land surveyors and in particular county surveyors. They have determined in their infinite wisdom and power that professionally staffed county surveyors are not needed.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the staff at the state cartographer’s office and some county surveyors, land surveyors are now able to access important land surveying and mapping information online. Most important is the access of PLS monument records by all professional land surveyors. Yet how many county surveyors allow their PLSS monument records to be centralized in this common data base, if nothing more than for the sake of completeness, accessibility and efficiency?

How many counties were represented at the important forum held last March?

2015 Forum Attendees Stevens Point Wisconsin

Many counties chose to send no one. How many counties were represented by a full time county surveyor? That number is unknown, but is certainly worth determining. Whatever it is, that number is a distinct minority.

How effective will incentivized funding be in accomplishing remonumentation on the county boundaries? Many counties will determine remonumentation will be more expensive than what the counties are willing to match, even with some state funding.

The idea of addressing county boundaries first is nearly impossible to complete. From my experience, county boundaries are contingent upon other PLSS corners on the interior of the townships. Unless the professional land surveyor can retrace the footsteps of the county surveyor who long ago resurveyed an entire township, the idea of doing only county boundaries first shows a complete lack of understanding on how to properly accomplish remonumentation.

Quick and Dirty Services

Twice you mentioned the term in your message that professional land surveyors should refrain from “providing quick and dirty services”, relative to counties contracting for remonumentation. As a former full time county surveyor who was dedicated to providing remonumentation services in the best manner possible, I am troubled by your true and correct assessment of the situation. How do we as professionals provide quick and dirty services? Yet you see this as a very distinct possibility. I would agree.

Quick and dirty services are only provided if county decision makers, such as non-professionals and politicians, are given the opportunity to accept low bid contracts. What is the answer? Perhaps put professionals who are remonumentation experts in charge of awarding contracts. And those contracts will only be awarded to professionals who have the proper training and qualifications in remonumentation, and who have the experience to prove it. In addition, the low bid is never the final determining factor on who is awarded the contract. Or better yet, just hire a full time dedicated county surveyor, or even a district surveyor.

The following link in Vernon County, WI shows what can happen when quick and dirty services for remonumentation are procured by local politicians who are not land surveyors, and who do not know what they are doing:

Remonumentation is a distinct specialty within the entire realm of land surveying and requires specialized education and training, in addition to extensive experience. Ask any full time county surveyor. Just as you would not ask your family doctor to replace your arthritic knee, you do not allow any land surveyor to do remonumentation. Yet A-E 7.08 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code allows any land surveyor to record a USPLS monument record under certain conditions. Is this different than remonumentation? I have always viewed remonumentation as necessary to avoid the Jeff Lucas Pin Cushion effect.

Yet A-E 7.08 (1)(b) provides the monument record is necessary when:

b) The land surveyor who performs the survey accepts a location for the U.S. public land survey corner which differs from that shown on a U.S. public land survey monument record filed in the office of the county surveyor or register of deeds for the county in which the corner is located;

Any licensed land surveyor can go out in any county, which is considered remonumentation complete, and change the location of any USPLS corner, if he or she deems it was not properly determined. This code permitted action defeats the whole and original intent of remonumentation. This practice needs to end. Again read Diann’s solutions.

A Real Solution

At the March 2015 forum, I offered a solution. I suggested that Wisconsin begin to manage land information activities within 5-7 districts reporting to a central state geospatial commission, the Wisconsin Geospatial Commission. My suggestion generated a laugh from all the participants, because this would involve change and legislative action that seems impossible. The same amount of laughter would have been heard when I started in land surveying 40 years ago. If someone had predicted we would be surveying using intelligent boxes on range poles with high tech signals from foreign objects in the sky, he would have been laughed out of the room. Back then we only had electronic distance measuring.

Unless there are qualified processionals put in charge of making land surveying and mapping decisions in this state and in all counties, we will only continue to fool ourselves. What Diann wrote about is similar to what I am proposing, except rather than a state surveyor, I am proposing the Wisconsin Geospatial Commission. I have also detailed how this would favorably affect counties in another written document, available upon request from me. What has previously been written about the state of land information in this state in WLIP reports is far from good.

Professional land surveyors, including dedicated full time county surveyors and GIS professionals, who very much depend upon us to build a proper foundation, deserve far better.

I have much more information that I could share. If you are interested, please contact me. I am only trying to be about real change and real solutions.

Best Regards,

RJ Leaver

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Originally published on August 15, 2016

About the Author

Wendell T. Harness

I’ve been building online properties since the late 1980’s and transitioned to web design in 1999. I formed Harness Media in 2005 to help businesses grow through online marketing. I also talk to cats in a silly voice.

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