City Employees in Iowa Help Property Owners Find Property Pins

Surveying rules spur debate in Bettendorf

Those metal pins that mark the corners of property boundaries can get buried and hard to find.

But does it require a licensed surveyor with high-tech equipment to pinpoint it?

According to Bettendorf City Attorney Greg Jager, a dispute between the city of Bettendorf and the Iowa Engineering and Land Surveying Examining Board comes down to the definition of one word — “locating.”

The dispute arose out of a complaint filed with the board against the city in September 2009 that stated city employees, while performing inspections before issuing building permits to homeowners, were helping the homeowners find the pins in their yards that mark the corners of the property lines.

Jager said city employees were doing that to make sure that the project, such as a new deck or room addition, met city requirements for setbacks from the property lines.

The anonymous tipster, and the board, believed the Iowa Code requires that work to be done by a licensed land surveyor.

The Bettendorf City Council is considering a resolution to the dispute that would include city employees no longer helping property owners find the pins in their property. That would make it necessary for them to hire a land surveyor if they couldn’t find the pins themselves.

Some council members last week were reluctant to agree to the resolution.

Iowa Code Chapter 542B defines land surveying as including “locating, relocating, establishing, re-establishing, setting, or resetting of permanent monumentation for any property line or boundary of any tract or parcel of land.”

Jager told council members that city employees were only “locating” the property pins according to the common definition of the term, meaning to find where they were in the ground, not according to the definition used in surveying, meaning to affix them in the ground.

In a letter to Jager in January, Robert Lampe, the board’s executive officer, wrote that the board’s peer review committee was reluctant to seek a civil penalty against the city, but that the city’s actions clearly constituted practicing land surveying. Lampe also wrote that the board was not aware of any other cities in Iowa that engage in the practice.

Davenport building official Mike McGee said Davenport employees do not help property owners find their property pins.

Jager told council members the board has not been swayed from its view.

“Long story short, we’re not in a position where we can change their minds,” Jager said.

He told the council while he believes the city would have a “better than even” chance of prevailing if the issue were to go to court, it may not be worth the time, effort and money to challenge it.

“I’m not sure that it’s an appropriate use of taxpayer money to have one layer of government fighting another layer of government,” Jager said.

The board already has agreed to the terms of the proposed resolution, but Bettendorf aldermen delayed a vote on the resolution from the June 7 meeting agenda to the June 21 meeting to give Jager and council members more time to study the issue.

If the council does not approve the resolution, the city could face a fine of $1,000 to $2,500 per infraction, Jager said.

He said a better way to fight the issue may be to ask the Iowa Legislature to either more clearly define “finding” in the statute or to exclude cities doing work for their own purposes, such as verifying compliance with zoning ordinances.

Alderman Scott Naumann, 2nd Ward, called the board’s position “somewhat ridiculous,” and Alderman Greg Adamson, 4th Ward, expressed concern about forcing residents to pay the cost of having their property surveyed.

Michael Crapnell, owner of Crapnell Land Surveying in Davenport, said it would usually cost a property owner $250 to $475 to have a land survey done by a licensed surveyor. Licensed surveyors can’t just locate the pin for the property owner, they have to do a full survey to make sure the pin placement was accurate, Crapnell said.

“Anybody can drive a pipe in the ground,” he said.

Crapnell said he was surprised that Bettendorf had allowed its employees to find property pins for land owners because he believed the city could be held liable if the pin placement were wrong.

“I don’t know why they would take on the liability when they don’t have to,” Crapnell said.

Jager said he didn’t believe the city’s liability was a concern. Even if a property pin were misplaced and something were built that didn’t comply with the city’s ordinances, he said it was unlikely that a problem would be created that couldn’t be fixed by a variance from the city’s board of adjustment.

Jager said city employees should be able to assume that the pins are placed accurately because they were placed by a licensed surveyor, and common sense would tell the city employees whether a pin placement seemed to be so inaccurate that it could result in a problem.

“If something looks catawampus, it raises a red flag with us, and we do require a full survey,” he said.

Source: Quad-City Times