The Surveyor: A Guardian of Wealth

| December 10, 2018

by Michael A. Clifford

On April 21, 1898, an article in the New York Herald observed, “It is an astonishing thing that men will fight harder for $500 worth of land than they will for $10,000 in money.”

The next day, thousands of people raced across an Oklahoma plain in what became known as the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Throughout history, the most steadfast and universal measure of wealth has been the ownership of land. The value of that investment requires the work of a highly trained professional.

At the heart of the land surveying profession is the surveyor’s role in protecting property rights — both private and public. The licensed land surveyor’s duty is singular in determining lines of ownership, easements, and rights of way, but there is much more than meets the eye to determining the value of the ground beneath our feet.

The surveyor’s role

Professional surveyors’ work extends past laying down tape and checking distances. They also interpret legal documents, maps, plans, and previous survey reports for further accuracy. They must understand how the courts decide on boundary disputes, knowing that a monument or a natural feature may take precedent over years of seemingly authoritative documents. Many surveyors even take law classes in order to be conversant with attorneys and other land use professionals.

Beyond law, surveyors are historians. A key challenge of modern surveying is reconciling old records with modern methods. Some outdated methods like chains, builder rods, and tape — dating back to surveying’s infancy in ancient Egypt — were still used in surveys from the 19th and early-20th centuries. They have been relied upon for centuries, but now, modern technology provides precision that the old methods often cannot match. A 100-year-old survey used as a primary source for residential or commercial property development may contain inaccuracies. And, it’s up to a qualified, professional, and licensed surveyor to settle the difference.

The surveyor’s value

The surveyor’s work has value beyond the technical, but that is not always championed from within. Many in the surveying field dramatically reduce their fees to outbid competitors, or simply because they enjoy the work so much that they’ll take smaller fees just to have more to do.

Worse, the value of a competent professional surveyor is often undercut by those who do sloppy work, cutting corners while representing themselves as fully qualified simply because they have a license to operate. In some cases, unlicensed technicians who can use measurement equipment and sound like a professional have their work rubber-stamped by a licensed surveyor that was never present on the job.

If professional surveyors don’t consider their value, it will be all too easy for attorneys, architects, builders, and others in construction and development to devalue it too.

The surveyor’s honor

Hard as it may be to believe, the concept of a licensed surveyor is actually fairly new. Although California passed the United States’ first licensure law in 1891, and Wyoming followed suit 16 years later, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that every American state (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) had laws governing registration and licensing.

Now, professional licensing boards in each state uphold the public’s best interest by prohibiting fraudulent practice and by holding licensed surveyors to rigorous education and experience standards.

The advent of licensing reflected the idea that a survey is more than a report in a stack of paper. It’s a professional service, the result of many hours of diligent, comprehensive work including land measurement, topographic maps, construction survey, and management of property documents and information to coordinate with local governance.

It takes a professional to do all of those things right. Just as accountants are entrusted with great monetary wealth, professional surveyors have their own fundamental mission: measuring, marking, and recording the fortune inherent in the land.

Michael A. Clifford, PLS, is the cofounder and principal of DGT Associates.

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