Breaking the Record

At a recent state convention I learned a new surveying term: "Breaking the Record." This refers to publishing boundary dimensions that differ from the record dimensions of the parcel. Many surveyors in that region apparently "break the record" only after clear and convincing evidence forces them to do so. The premise seems to be that publishing results that differ from the deed geometry creates "problems" that must be resolved by others involved with the property; therefore, unless compelling evidence argues otherwise, surveyors should sidestep the field measurements and note the record measurements as the dimensions resulting from the survey. I have since learned that the custom is widespread in some other parts of the country as well. Marc Cheves, Editor of The American Surveyor, tells me that when he moved from one state to another, one of the title companies in the new locale mentioned him in its in-house newsletter because he insisted on showing his measurements instead of the record dimensions, contrary to the insistence of local title attorneys in the area. Apparently non-surveyors in some areas rely heavily on record dimensions.

The Rule

However, the custom seems to doubt the established rules for interpretation of descriptions. Let’s review. When a conflict arises between elements of a description, courts (and hence, correct retracement by surveyors) will attempt to honor those elements found generally to be more certain, and reject those elements shown by experience to be less certain. This undergirds the stability of boundaries. The order of priority, absent senior rights, is 1) monuments, 2) courses and distances, 3) area and 4) coordinates. Although slight variations exist from state to state, generally this order of priority governs correct retracement across the United States. These, collectively, have been referred to as a "rule of construction" and constitute one of the pillars of boundary law. We shall refer to it as The Rule.

I have run across many surveyors who, because of ignorance of The Rule or because of a misunderstanding of its application, routinely honor courses and distances over monuments and even above senior rights in retracement. In contrast, surveyors who are concerned with "breaking the record" understand and adhere to The Rule in their boundary analyses. They will honor two called-for pipes as being the corners of the lot and will note them as such in their writings. The issue arises when, even though their work indicates a distance of 100.04 feet between the pipes, they report the distance as 100.00 feet because the record documents call that distance. The survey, then, reflects no change in the boundary.

Every Little Difference?

But wait. Does honoring the called pipes at either end of a line, despite measuring a different distance between them, change anything? Arguing so would call into question the effectiveness of The Rule. Think about that. Assuming that conflicts survive its application would presume it impotent. The Rule settles such issues by prescribing a clear order of priority when choosing between conflicting elements. When evidence is evaluated in conformance with The Rule, the evaluation is in accordance with the law—the same law, incidentally, in effect when both pipes were set and the original distance was measured. Therefore, if a lesser element conflicts with a greater element, how can honoring the greater element "change" anything?

Do we have an obligation to publish every little difference in measurements derived from our fieldwork? A valid argument against doing so is that because all measurements contain error, we have no reason to believe that our measurements are automatically more precise than those reflected in the record. After all, we can point to differences in our own successive measurements. Despite this fact, most would agree that, on average, older measurements are less certain than those taken today. Even so, that misses the point.

The Point of Boundary Surveying

We are bound—by ethical codes if not by regulations—to render only truthful and non-misleading opinions in the course of our work. So, any arguments in favor of restating the record dimensions instead of the result of field measurements must be grounded in the premise that the record dimensions are as much part of the truth as are the results of our work. But can this be? What exactly is our product?

We are retained partly to opine on the location of the perimeter (an intellectual pursuit) and partly to place monuments to mark the locations on the ground (a mechanical pursuit). There would be no foul, I suppose, in retracing a parcel and not publishing any courses and distances along the outlines of the property. For instance, we could walk the perimeter with the client and point out the bounds. We could also render a sketch with no numbers along the perimeter. But when we report geometric data as part of our opinion, others have a right to expect our writings to reflect our findings, not simply a parroting of the record data. Would there be any point in clients retaining us if our custom were merely to return the deed geometry to them in the form of a drawing? Could they not gain the same benefit by plotting the deed themselves?

I am not sure who the practice benefits, but surely it is not future surveyors. Footsteps are hard enough to follow without the former surveyor intentionally misstating his results. Beyond that, the practice creates dilemmas. How much of a difference is necessary before rejecting the record data in favor of the actual field results? Proponents of positional tolerance statements on boundary positions should be especially offended by the custom. Such a statement expands the possible true location of the point under consideration from the location specified by the geometry. No other scheme is practicable. Hence, if 0.04 feet were a tolerance attached to the distance above, retracement surveyors would deem the true value to lie between 99.96 and 100.04 feet, when in reality the range should be between 100.00 and 100.08 feet. Any possible use for such a statement is thus sharply diminished.

Why Not Break the Record?

Try as I may, I have not been able to find a compelling argument against reporting the values genuinely resulting from the current survey. I suspect that the practice stems from a reluctance to defend the results of the new work when they differ from the record dimensions. Differences in measurements are a fact of surveying life, and surveyors must be prepared to explain their origin and ramifications. (Those having trouble with that obligation should study Ben Buckner’s excellent series on the subject in Professional Surveyor.) Perhaps the realization of slight measurement uncertainty will prove to be uncomfortable to non-surveyors involved in the process. Nevertheless, the courts have laid down clear instructions in the evaluation of boundary evidence—instructions binding all players in the real estate arena, not merely surveyors. If "breaking the record" is the natural outgrowth of complying with those instructions, who are we to object?

Copyright © 1998 By Joel M. Leininger, LS