The State of the Cadastre

Updated: June 27, 2016

State of the Cadastre

The state of the cadastre in this country is still at an all time high at D+. Surveyors see the world of GIS as the next isolated individual parcel that will need to be surveyed, or resurveyed. That decision on which parcel and why that parcel needs surveying is always made by anyone but the surveyor.

Repainting a wallWe do maintenance on walls with repainting. We do maintenance on roads with repaving. Do we ever do maintenance on parcels with replatting? Hardly ever. Why is replatting even necessary? Because landowners and lawyers have determined ‘legal’ descriptions without the involvement of a surveyor since the civil war. Now these non-surveyed and non-mapped areas are so loused up, that we need to intervene with major surgery called the replat, if we can get the local politicians to approve of it. We go ahead and parcel map it for GIS purposes regardless of data integrity. No wonder we have a D+ rating.

Major national geospatial committees still talk about the accuracy of parcel mapping standards in terms of how much of a fraction of an inch on a hard copy map sheet the mapped lines are different from true. But we never really know what true is. And do we really think the hard copy map is still relevant in 2016? I thought GIS was primarily on computers in digital format.

Surveyors remain the most uneducated work force in America. We cannot decide how much schooling is necessary to do our work. Most think mentoring is absolutely essential. I had 2 mentors and they taught me most things wrong. Now in my 60’s, I have finally come to realize that. These were esteemed individuals with the right schooling, one with a 4 year degree in civil engineering, and the other with a 2 year specific land surveying degree. They still got it wrong, and I got it wrong. Is mentoring really all that it is cracked up to be?

We cannot decide if we are technicians or professionals. Against the warning of Curtis Brown, who clearly stated land surveyors should never be called ‘professionals’ by self proclamation; Wisconsin managed new legislation which now proclaims all Wisconsin registered land surveyors to be Wisconsin Professional Land Surveyors. It changes nothing. Therefore all the other lobbying groups approved of it, if it changes nothing, and land surveyors simply want to be called professionals. But then again, all the other groups might be wishfully thinking, maybe land surveyors will behave more responsibly. Practices are still blatantly abused and the general public begins to wonder if their land surveyor even has a license. Most do not because the unlicensed surveyor guy works under his nemesis, the civil engineer. Since the PE also has an RLS, the PE can send out unlicensed surveyors and crews in the name of ‘under the direct supervision’. This term is clearly recited many times within the statutes and administrative codes. PE’s will argue vehemently that they have the authority to determine who does surveying, even without a license. Land surveying licensing boards just look the other way.

Surveyors could probably agree more on the center of the earth rather than the center of any section in the PLSS. We still cannot figure out that if an old barbed wire fence can be traced back to the year 1873, then it has a very high probability of being the 40 line, or the 1/16 line, rather than where the 1973 manual of instructions of the public land surveys would put the new line today.

Jeffrey Lucas routinely beats up on our ‘profession’ in a widely distributed journal, with this basic premise. What is the matter with land surveyors? Or more clearly stated, what is wrong with the land surveying profession? To Mr. Lucas’s credit, he has opened many eyes for the better, but it is hard to hear this from a lawyer, who was suppose to be an advocate for his client, and not take on the role of describing land without a surveyor, and then calling it in typical lawyerese a ‘legal’ description. Lawyers advocate for clients and now Mr. Lucas says surveyors advocate for corners and lines, and not clients.

Our cadastral system is all based upon the ‘legal’ description, and volumes have been written for surveyors on how to interpret ‘legal’ descriptions. We cannot decide if the legal description should come first and then it gets surveyed, or does it get surveyed, and then the ‘legal’ description follows? We cannot figure out in this day and age of Google earth and everything digital map graphics and images within GIS systems, that we still need to resort to the text based legal description that lawyers draft. We do this because lawyers started doing this after the civil war, and they did this first with quill and ink, in their own handwriting. It was too much to engage the services of a surveyor, so the ‘legal’ description will work just fine. Just get the number of paces from the lawyer’s client and bingo, we have a new legal description.

We still cannot figure out, just as the old adage has taught us, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Then the surveyor’s map should also be worth a 1000 words, or far more than some text based legal description from a lawyer. So why do we do this? Simply to accommodate the lawyers? My new survey maps get reviewed by 5 different entities before recording to make sure I am held to a higher standard, and it works with the county’s GIS. A lawyer has the supreme privilege of recording anything text based, with no reviews. If it does not fit the county’s GIS, deal with it.

Would it surprise the land surveying profession to realize that almost all land surveying decisions are made by those who know nothing about the process? This relegates land surveyors to be nothing more than mere technicians. The larger more important decisions have already been made by someone else, not land surveyors.

Property Corner PostNokia owns the rights to decimeter level accuracy with cell phones capable of doing precise positioning for anyone who owns a cell phone. Why will surveyors continue to plead that no, the general public is not qualified to go out and determine their own property corners? I am all for everyone with a cell phone going out and FINDING their property corners with their own cell phone and a shovel. Can you imagine the miles and acres of right-of-way infringements by farmers who are now charged with preserving those right-of-way points and lines with their own GPS now part of their farm implements? Can you imagine putting the responsibility on farmers where it rightfully belongs? Why? Because technology has made it so.

Surveyors today will argue that every farmer needs to hire a land surveyor to do a private isolated individual resurvey of that portion of a right-of-way line to keep the farmer out of that one particular right-of-way. Therefore since we advocate for such great inefficiency at such a great cost, nothing gets surveyed. And the farmers keep infringing, because nobody can figure it out.

Why not just modernize where everything is at, so everyone will know where everything is at? This includes Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public who wants to know where their property corner is with their cell phone and a shovel. We cannot seem to understand that everything stated in the prior 2 paragraphs will require the new and modern services of a land surveyor, working smarter rather than harder.

But the previously stated scenario is impossible with the state of our current land information systems and its D+ rating. We cannot seem to understand that it takes a surveyor to SET a new survey marker clearly identified with his name and license number, complete with new and modern GNSS positioning and publicly available cell phone coordinates. We cannot seem to understand that once the surveyor SETS the mark as described, then anyone should be able to FIND that mark with their own cell phone and shovel. And we have not figured out that one single new law stating that anyone tampering or moving the new surveyor’s mark will be fined no less than $50,000, rather than the $1,000 now that has been on the books forever, and is meaningless.

We are just not there yet. Technology is there now, but surveyors simply are not. But then how can you blame surveyors? Most all major land surveying decisions are made by everyone other than land surveyors.

I have one professional goal left in my career. Speak out about the obvious, and truthfully identify the current system as ravaged with inefficiency and in such need of modernizing. Remember replatting? We repaint and repave every day. What is replatting? No wonder we are rated D+.

All I need now is an avenue for speaking and writing, and getting the message out. Some have labeled me the lone wolf, crying in the wilderness. Good luck, they say, trying to change the system.

If it is broke, maybe we should change it. Some ask how and why? I ask why not?

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Originally published on June 27, 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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