Gambling With The Deregulation of Land Surveying

Updated: August 1, 2016

Gambling With The Deregulation of Land Surveying

The editor of POB just wrote about the deregulation of land surveying. Everyone is buying it. Everyone seems to be missing the point that we have already been deregulated as land surveyors, long ago.

How did this happen?

In my USPLS state of Wisconsin, deregulation began when the Office of the Surveyor General closed 150 years ago in 1866. This was the result of the federal government believing that the work of the PLS was done, and back in 1866, it was believed the locals could now take over what the federal government had now finished, and what the feds were also done funding.

This began the ‘any man can now measure mentality’ and that began the deregulation of land surveying in my state.

Deed Legal DescriptionWho can measure?

The legal profession now took over the task of writing legal descriptions, not based upon any land surveys. How did they manage to do this without land surveys? They made it up, or pulled it out of the air or maybe some other obscure place.

Civil engineers began the construction of highways using tools also used by surveyors. Since the engineers’ task was viewed as most important, i.e. we all need roads for cars, then the engineer also figured he could do what the surveyor did. Same tools, it must be the same job.

Later the civil engineers became licensed and called professional engineers or PE’s. They would also write the land surveyor’s exam, become dual licensed and send out unlicensed land surveyors, since the PE also had an RLS license, and it was all done under the guise of “direct supervision.”

State DOT’s indicated that it was not necessary for a land surveyor to be licensed in the land surveying duties associated with state highway projects. In turn county highway departments saw the example set by the state, and hired land surveying/engineering technicians without a land surveyor’s license.

Further collusion resulted to exclude the land surveyor. Counties would hire real property listers to take made up phony legal descriptions drafted by lawyers and set up property for assessment and taxation. The work of the real property lister, if you would ask them, will tell you that all their work is based upon “recorded deeds.” That is right, made up legal descriptions drafted without using a land surveyor. Further collusion resulted when the real property lister looked to the county mapper/GIS guru to finally get all this tax parcel map information automated. Do we need a surveyor? No, the technology is here now, and we cannot wait for the surveyor. If we do, it will take forever, or it will never get done. Let’s get the best approximation that we can!

Further damage and deregulation took place when the feds walked away with the “any man can now measure mentality.” With the loss of the state land surveying authority, the Office of the Surveyor General, the state legislature then passed laws that gave the responsibility for the maintenance of the USPLS to town boards. Town boards of course are comprised of citizens who are not land surveyors. And if the county surveyors back then lobbied and explained the importance of all this, only 50% of the town boards in my county thought it was a good idea and bought it.

For example, in my county, town boards in 15 of the 30 congressional towns said yes, we will take the recommendation of the then 1870 county surveyor and choose to remonument the federal landmarks with cut limestones 6” x 6” x 36”. This is when the land surveying profession took another major deregulation hit. Now rather than the professional land surveying authority making these decisions, county surveyors were left to scramble and lobby non-surveying town boards to get this important task completed. Eventually this maintenance program by only half the towns wasted away and counties took the responsibility 100 years later in the 1970’s with new state legislation that said counties “MAY” continue this maintenance. It is not necessary. It is optional. Another major hit and deregulation. And if counties choose to do it, according to the statutes, you have got 20 years to finish it. (And then you are done.)

Survey Map with PrismBecause land surveyors have been left out of equation now for 150 years, we have a royal mess and state of the art approximations with terrible inefficiencies. We still resort to the text based legal description of the crafty drafty lawyers to get all this information assembled “intelligently.”

What about graphics or a survey map way back then? That would entail the services of a land surveyor, and with the “any man can now measure mentality,” we now thrive on inefficiency at its greatest.

I supervised a county’s tax parcel mapping program for 22 years. I was charged with making sense out of nonsense. I saw the big picture of not only the next isolated, individual parcel that needs to be surveyed or resurveyed, but I saw a 50,000 jigsaw puzzle to assemble with pieces that were destined not to fit to any acceptable degree of accuracy or precision.

The following was written by my former subordinates who are still at it, mapping at my county.

Areas of light blue and light red (pink) may appear throughout the maps. These shades are displaying gaps and overlaps that may or may not exist in its location. Think of Dodge County as being a puzzle with 50,000 pieces (tax parcels). As you lay these pieces on the table you will notice that some are new and some are very old, and consist of many shapes and sizes. Some have worn edges and others have new, sharp, crisp edges. As you try to match up adjacent pieces you also notice that some pieces don’t fit together very well. There appear to be gaps between some and other pieces overlap with each other.

In the 1830s government surveyors created this puzzle with about 14,500 pieces in the Territory of Wisconsin (of which 900 would eventually make up Dodge County) and each of these pieces fit perfectly with one another. As the land was sold these surveyed pieces (sections) were further divided and described by different people using their “legal scissors” to cut the sections into smaller and smaller pieces. Some of these people had great skill and training in the use of “their scissors” and the pieces they cut still fit together nicely. Others used “dull, worn scissors” with little knowledge of their proper use. Their pieces don’t fit well with the others. All of these puzzle pieces are then thrown back into the “box” called the Register of Deeds office.

How would you like to assemble a 50,000 jigsaw puzzle by resorting to the reading of all those text based legal descriptions that have been thrown into the “box.” Does that sound like an exercise in total inefficiency?

At the time when the Surveyor General still ruled in Wisconsin, “each of these pieces fit perfectly with one another!” Since that office was closed in 1866, the surveying authority has been gone, and there is now insanity without any land surveying authority.

We are a profession of boundaries, but how many others have crossed our boundaries and done our work, or said our work is optional, because of the lack of a current day land surveying authority? History is replete with many such examples.

So I know what deregulation is. I have seen it in my career for 40 years by looking back 150 years. We as surveyors deserve far better, and our future will not be determined by deriding over possible future deregulation. It has already happened long ago, and I call upon all surveyors concerned about this profession to wake up and take a look at history. And then when you see the obvious, determine in your spirit, that what you do is far more valuable than what we have been dealt.

We have been dealt a bad poker hand, and it would be better to fold them than to keep playing and losing. We are like gamblers. We are far better than that.

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Originally published on August 1, 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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