A Reckless Path of Destruction—The City of San Diego's Campaign to Destroy Land Survey Monuments

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In 1985, in response to a large number of complaints, the California Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors notified all state and municipal Land Surveyors and City Engineers that the paving over and destruction of land survey monuments was a violation of state law. Although most public agencies took heed, the City of San Diego adopted a defiant stand, challenging the board’s position. City Engineer Ray Hall told the board that he and his staff worked for "The City" and they did not have to follow state laws.

A short time later, city forces installed a new water line in the affluent Muirlands Subdivision in La Jolla. In the process, they removed volumes of historic survey monuments, placed 60 years earlier by city surveyors when the serpentine like tract was improved and the accessory monuments were installed as primary cadastral points and lines. Consequently, a series of complaints were filed and Hall once again defied the board and informed local surveyors that the monuments should be okay and that a foot or two was an acceptable tolerance. Following more irrational arguments by Hall, the state’s Attorney General’s office elected to prosecute the case and faced with inevitable conviction, Hall acceded and began to comply with state law, albeit reluctantly.

In the following year, the City of Coronado, another affluent city of multimillion dollar homes, located south and west of San Diego, and with remarkable views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean, began destroying legal land survey monuments when it undertook an ambitious campaign to install pedestrian ramps at street corners. As with San Diego, the controlling survey monuments had been set by the City Engineer some seventy years earlier.

In this case, the Attorney General’s office threatened to issue an injunction prohibiting all public works construction until the City Engineer began protecting and preserving the monuments. Coronado’s City Engineer responded much quicker and he made sure that the monuments were protected and documented, but not before publicly criticizing the "paraprofessional" land surveying community from expressing concern about land surveying issues. He argued that Civil Engineers were better qualified to handle land surveying matters.

Soon after the initial complaints were filed, the state legislature revised the licensing laws across the state now requiring that anyone in charge of reviewing subdivision maps had to be licensed as a Land Surveyor and newly licensed City Engineers employed by municipal agencies were prohibited from map checking. This change occurred in part because of complaints filed against the City of San Diego wherein unlicensed staff members and unqualified Civil Engineers were dictating mapping procedures to licensed Land Surveyors as a condition to recording a map or getting a condition satisfied.

The City of San Diego wasted no time defying the state when they promoted a newly licensed Civil Engineer, not authorized to practice land surveying, to run the survey and mapping departments and to sign maps. More complaints were filed and the civil service commission was forced to step in and once again, the city was forced to comply with state laws adopted as a result of their transgressions. The unlicensed engineer was removed from his post and the city hired a Land Surveyor to oversee the approval of subdivision maps, all as required by state law.

More recently, San Diego resumed its destruction of survey monuments throughout the city with many being eradicated in the Mount Soledad section of La Jolla where homes are valued from three to fifteen million dollars. Here, one survey marker can control the location of fifty million dollars’ worth of real estate and property surveys are inherently difficult because the underlying maps were poorly drafted and many of the lots do not close. Since the pavement meanders throughout the dedicated right of way with no logical correlation between width, public improvements, and right of way lines, it’s anyone’s guess as to where to look. Naturally, adjacent property owners installed private improvements up to the edge of the pavement and well into the right of way, making sideline monuments virtually nonexistent. With no curbs, gutters or sidewalks, it is impossible to logically ascertain where the dedicated right of way is located.

In anticipation of this problem arising, the state’s professional land surveyors act, (Section 8771 of the Business and Professions Code (B&P) was adopted to protect land survey monuments:

8771…b) When monuments exist that control the location of … roads, streets, or highways, or provide horizontal or vertical survey control, the monuments shall be located and referenced by or under the direction of a licensed land surveyor or registered civil engineer prior to the time when any streets, highways, other rights-ofway, or easements are improved, constructed, reconstructed, maintained, resurfaced, or relocated…They shall be reset in the surface of the new construction, a suitable monument box placed thereon, or permanent witness monuments set to perpetuate their location if any monument could be destroyed, damaged, covered, or otherwise obliterated,…Sufficient controlling monuments shall be retained or replaced in their original positions to enable property, right-of-way and easement lines, property corners, and subdivision and tract boundaries to be reestablished without devious surveys necessarily originating on monuments differing from those that currently control the area. It shall be the responsibility of the governmental agency or others performing construction work to provide for the monumentation required by this section. It shall be the duty of every land surveyor or civil engineer to cooperate with the governmental agency in matters of maps, field notes, and other pertinent records…

Following recent complaints about city construction work in the area and 8771 violations, a recent investigative report on San Diego’s KUSI television’s "Turko Files," documented the ongoing destruction of valuable monuments in this wealthy neighborhood. (http://www.kusi.com/video?autoStart=true&topVideoCatNo=default&clipId=7265362#.T8sdujjSrQA.email)

In spite of the attorney general’s actions 25 years earlier and the existence of protection laws, the city’s chief field surveyor, Ron Dodds, made the same indefensible arguments as had his predecessor Hall who had been pursued by the state’s attorney general for violating the same laws. In support of his position, Dodds parroted Hall claiming that the small lead plugs, less than the radius of a dime and brass tacks were easily recoverable beneath ten or twelve inches of asphalt, consistent with Hall’s argument that they could be recovered in a "few minutes" by "scrap[ing] away the slurry seal." Neither Dodds nor Hall had any explanation for reestablishing the large number of monuments destroyed by the utility line trenching work in a few minutes. In many instances, Dodds’ group had been notified prior to construction occurring and still, they did nothing, with Dodds arguing that he and his associates were not subject to state laws. When related questions arose about who was in "responsible charge" for some city surveying work that was called into question, Dodds responded:

"The fact that [my predecessor]…is not working for the City and no long
er in the "Deputy" designation. The assigned successor (Dodds) takes over signing and stamping as part of their duties. We set "San Diego City Engr." disks not [my predecessor’s] or mine so the responsibility requirement don’t [sic] apply for Government as they would for any practicing Surveyor. The City financially protects and legally represents those of us who perform our work duties for the City.

His arguments were made in spite of the fact that the state’s land surveying act specifically applied to these activities. Dodds’ group adopted an even more troubling position when they began denying access to surveyors who needed to obtain copies of city notes and records in brazen defiance of the state’s Public Records Act (PRA). Under PRA law, city staff is required to produce the survey records upon demand at no cost, except for reproduction costs. Codified under section 6250 et seq. of the state’s Government Code, the PRA includes the following provisions:

6253…(a) Public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record … Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefore…

6253.1…(a) When a member of the public requests to inspect a public record or obtain a copy of a public record, the public agency, in order to assist the member of the public make a focused and effective request that reasonably describes an identifiable record or records, shall do all of the following, to the extent reasonable under the circumstances:

(1) Assist the member of the public to identify records and information that are responsive to the request or to the purpose of the request, if stated.

(2) Describe the information technology and physical location in which the records exist.

Dodds declared that he and his associates were not subject to the PRA law because "they worked for the city," despite the fact that the law was specifically adopted to mandate their compliance. Dodds also withheld electronic files arguing that because the city used "Microstation" software, private surveyors couldn’t view the data because they used "Autodesk" software, yet another blatant PRA violation. In another instance, Dodds refused to release survey records unless the requester lobbied the mayor and city council for more funds for his department. Complaints referred to Dodds’ supervisor, a civil engineer with an expired license, went unanswered.

More grievances were filed with City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and they were all systematically neglected. Goldsmith, a former judge and elected official, ran an aggressive campaign by distinguishing himself from his predecessor Mike Aguirre who created controversy by investigating various city officials who were indicted, convicted, or who had mishandled the city’s notorious pension scandal. Unlike Aguirre, Goldsmith distinguished himself by selling himself as The City’s Attorney as opposed to The City Attorney. According to Goldsmith "The City Attorney shall…prosecute persons charged with or guilty of the violations of the state laws occurring within the city limits of The City of San Diego for offenses constituting misdemeanors." He noted that under the city charter, he had three distinct roles: 

• Advisory–We provide advice to the City and each of its departments, including the City Council and Mayor.
• Civil Litigation–We prosecute or defend, as the case may be, civil lawsuits in which the City is a party.
• Criminal–We prosecute criminal misdemeanors and infractions committed within the City limits and in Poway.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence of city surveyors committing misdemeanors, Goldsmith steadfastly refused to investigate these charges even when the black and white code sections were delivered to him. When Goldsmith’s obvious conflicts of interest were brought to his attention he did nothing.

One of the problems with the destruction of the survey monuments surfaced when Mayor Jerry Sanders adopted an aggressive campaign to rebuild and repave deteriorated city streets in response to incessant complaints about treacherous potholes and deferred street maintenance. In response, the mayor issued a self-serving press release about the paving projects at the same time the county’s grand jury issued a scathing report about the city’s mismanagement of city streets. The politically devised street repair campaign proved more problematic because the city continued to destroy and pave over survey monuments, forcing surveyors to create a whole new generation of potholes in order to uncover the buried monuments. Some of the holes were ten to twelve inches deep and not surprisingly, the monuments were located in dangerous street intersections.

Because of the volume of potholes throughout the city, "pothole litigators" have surfaced, creating more headaches and exposure for land surveyors. As one law firm solicitation states:

"If you have been hurt in a crash caused by a pothole, you may be able to seek financial compensation for vehicle repairs, medical bills, and other damages. To learn more about your legal rights and options, contact the San Diego pothole attorneys…"

Michael J. Pallamary is the president of Pallamary & Associates of La Jolla, California. He has been surveying real property since 1971. He is the author of "The Lay of the Land–a History of Land Surveying in San Diego County." Mr. Pallamary is a noted author and speaker.

A 3.115Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE