Did Surveyors Lie (to Avoid Alligators & Snakes)?

A 2.722Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with the maps necessary to understand the situation—is available by clicking HERE

If you’ve been in the business long enough, you’ve probably encountered your share of tangled information and hard-to-trace footsteps. Maybe it was trying to follow in the footsteps when there were none, or maybe it was just trying to sort all the footsteps out. Surveyor Donald Todd, owner of Atlantic/Caribbean Mapping in West Palm Beach, Florida has one such job. It has occupied his weekends for the past five years, generated 50 maps and 65 pounds of information, and he’s convinced that it ranks in the top ten GLO nightmares in the country. As he explained it to me in his office, I soon had to admit that it is the worst I, too, have ever seen.

First, a bit about Don and his company. Born in Pahokee, Florida, Don started surveying in 1972 at the age of 17. In addition to Florida, Don has worked on islands all over the Atlantic and Caribbean waters surrounding Florida, thus the company name. He got his Florida license in 1986, followed by a U.S. Virgin Islands license in 1990. At the height of his business, he had 35 employees. Now, he has down-scaled ­ though still busy ­ and has seven employees, counting himself and his wife, Cindy.

I asked what had caused him to go into surveying in the first place. He smiled and told about an early job where he worked at a gas station ­ a job involved a lot of grease. He grew tired of watching survey crews come by every afternoon to gas up ­ the crews were always cleaner than he was!

Don began working for Hutcheon Engineers in 1972. By 1983 he had begun Adams-Todd, a partnership with Richard Adams. In 1985 he started his own firm. The early years included a lot of land development work on the island of St. Croix and the airport on St. Thomas. In Florida his work was mostly related to land development (commercial and new house construction). For the past 25 years he has worked exclusively in three counties: Dade (the home of Miami), Broward (the home of Ft. Lauderdale) and Palm Beach (the home of West Palm Beach). Our discussion turned to computing, and he whipped out his HP25 and HP97. He grinned as he recalled the programmable 25: no memory, limited to 49 program steps, but still a marvelous invention that began transforming the way he worked. It was good for simple tasks, like figuring grades. Life became easier when the 97 came out. To this day, he still buys HP computers and figures he has made millions of calculations on HP equipment. But as the company grew and he was able to drift away from having to do the calcs, he was then able to concentrate on running the business and secure work.

Today Don uses both Topcon total stations and Topcon GPS. He’s had GPS for four years and also uses it for RTK. His nephew also works for the company, and they were able to learn GPS in a matter of weeks. For data collection he uses a TDS Ranger running TDS Survey Pro software. In the past, he used SMI software and knew Stanley Trent (the creator of SMI software) personally. Don helped develop the SMI routines for Florida and recalled working with Trent, drawing out program steps on a napkin. He also did plotting with an HP41.

Business continued to grow, and people were hired to do the comping work. As desktop computers became available, Don implemented DigiCad and InfoCad. Client requirements included MicroStation and AutoCAD deliverables, but because he wasn’t doing the actual comps, he never learned these last two programs. When he down-sized, he was faced with having to learn how to comp with modern software, although he didn’t want to start on the CAD ladder.

Then Don learned about Traverse PC, the Oregon company that develops software by the same name. He liked what he heard. He uses phrases like "honest and trustworthy" and "talk the talk" to describe the folks at Traverse PC, all because Traverse PC has been developed by actual surveyors who use the software every day. Don says the software has been easy to learn because it "thinks like a traverse," but more important, because using the software doesn’t require learning complicated CAD software. He also described the software as an "easy to learn survey program that learned how to draft," and software that "thinks like a surveyor from the old school." He also remarked that when he does have to call Traverse PC with a technical question, he gets to talk to a surveyor.

Don laughed as he recalled learning Traverse PC while not being that savvy about computers. One of the program features includes a drop-down that lists the last ten projects. Because he had no idea where the files were being saved, when it came time to call up Job #11, he was stumped. So, he learned how to create Projects.

Don pointed out that while he felt that only 2 percent of AutoCAD’s features were being used, he is utilizing 50 percent of the capability of Traverse PC. He has talked to other Traverse PC users who feel that they are using 90 percent of Traverse PC’s capabilities. He attributes this disparity to the fact that his company doesn’t do that many large-scale topographic surveys.

Todd added that he did not know how he could have pulled the Lake Okeechobee survey together without Traverse PC. He says the fact that he can organize his data (township lines, sections, parcels, etc) into traverses and then compare them (in this case to show the discrepancies) has been crucial to his analysis.

The Survey
Now back to the nightmare. Don called it "the most screwed-up GLO survey" he’s ever dealt with. It all began in 1855 when U.S. Deputy Surveyor W.J. Reyes was tasked with laying out a fractional township along the shores of Lake Okeechobee, 40 miles west of present-day West Palm Beach. When Reyes came through, the land east of the lake was all swamp and three feet deep. The border of the lake was a natural 200-foot-wide raised area. Reyes claimed he surveyed all four sides of the township (see Figure 1), but Don finds that hard to believe. "If Reyes had tried to survey the east and south lines, he wouldn’t have come out alive because of the snakes and alligators!" says Don. In his opinion, Reyes only surveyed the north line and the meander line, and furthermore, made a 10-chain bust as he came down the meander line.

Matters were compounded when the GLO came to do a resurvey in 1919. Refusing to acknowledge that Reyes had made a mistake, the GLO surveyors proceeded to set all the exterior township corners. But when they reached the southeast corner of the township (after simply coming record distance south), they simply struck a straight line from there to the end of the meander line at the southwest corner. Adding to the confusion, in the time between the GLO surveys, private surveyors prepared subdivision plats in several sections. Don showed me some 1925 railroad and highway maps that showed the gap created by Reyes’ chaining bust. To make matters worse, in 1882, Philadelphia millionaire Hamilton Disston bought four million acres from the federal government, drained the swamp, and even started draining Lake Okeechobee by building a canal from the lake to Tampa. In 1909, sections 1, 23, 27 and 33 were purchased, and by 1910 the problem was revealed. In 1919 the state came in to work on the east line, but immediately pulled out. Oddly, the survey notes have been removed from the state archives. Timber companies came from the south, and they, too, spotted the problem. Over the years, attempts have been made to "fix everything," but according to Don, each land owner and surveyor seemed to promote "solutions" that supported his own desires. Once the swamps were drained, the "worthless" land became valuable and to
day, is used for growing sugar. The land has pretty much been in the possession of the same land owners for the past 50 years with various parol agreements. If the land changes hands and the use changes from farming to development, Todd believes that eventually, multimillion dollar lawsuits will be the result. As you can see by looking at Figure 2, the area is a mess!

How many of our readers could share similar stories? I heard of one such situation in Michigan where all of the landowners were not occupying what their deeds said they owned. The solution was a giant quit-claim agreement and a re-plat of all the properties. Such solutions are very costly, and it’ll be interesting to see how this situation plays out. Perhaps a boundary line agreement among all the owners could solve the problem. But first, agreement would have to be reached. Don says some owners want to rely on acquiescence, but he asks the question, What is right? Do we rely on legal principles and deal with the ten-chain bust, or do we just continue to ignore it? Besides, according to Todd, Sections 23 and 27 (the two sections on either side of the ten-chain bust) are where they were in 1855, and occupation clearly shows what happened.

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

A 2.722Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with maps—is available by clicking HERE