Footsteps: Measurement Isn't Dead Yet

A 278Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Is measurement dead? At times this expression is used to express the importance of evidence evaluation in boundary surveys. (This is in contrast to the survey that ignores evidence and pays attention only to measurements.) In this installment of Footsteps I wanted to talk about the different views on the importance of measurements in boundary surveying, and attempt to bring a balanced perspective to what can be an emotionally charged debate.

In this article we will try to answer these questions:
1. Is the evaluation of physical evidence more important than measurements in boundary surveying?
2. What role do measurements play in boundary surveying?

Before we answer those two questions, let’s consider the two extreme views about this issue of measurements versus evaluation of evidence. (I don’t think there are many surveyors who live at either of these extremes, but are usually somewhere in between. However, a consideration of the extremes will be helpful.)

Extreme Viewpoint #1:
Who needs evidence?

Let’s examine the viewpoint of the boundary surveyor who holds his measurements as supreme, despite what the evidence on the ground may show. How is this surveyor’s viewpoint characterized? This surveyor may believe that modern technology replaces the requirements for physical evidence evaluation. He may reason: "Who needs a monument when I can use my real time network GPS to return to the same coordinate within a couple hundredths of a foot?" This boundary surveyor has a hard time "seeing" past the screen on his data collector, in more than one way.

How is this viewpoint manifest in surveying practice?
The boundary surveyor with this viewpoint may blindly stake out the boundaries of a parcel from measurements contained in a deed, ignoring the need to interpret the land descriptions controlling calls.

The boundary surveyor with this viewpoint might also locate site improvements and prepare exhibits based on digital parcel data without a proper survey.

The boundary surveyor with this viewpoint isn’t ashamed of setting his property corner monument just a few hundredths of a foot from mine. (After all, that is where the data collector tells him the monument belongs.)

Extreme Viewpoint #2:
Who needs measurements?

What about the viewpoint of the boundary surveyor who places the evaluation of physical evidence above all else? How might we describe this viewpoint? This type of boundary surveyor may believe that technology isn’t important. He may feel that physical evidence is all that matters. He may scoff that coordinates are a useless or misleading form of information.

How is this viewpoint manifest in surveying practice?
Have you ever seen a surveyor locate parcel boundaries based on an initial field work that revealed original monuments, without making measurements to confirm the monuments location? Have you even been told by a County Surveyor that your monument preservation records are no good because you don’t have local swing ties, but ties to local CORS instead? Have you ever spoken to a boundary surveyor that refuses to adapt to the changing technology that is shaping our entire profession?

A More Balanced Perspective
The reality is that both measurements and physical evidence evaluation are important. You can’t have a properly executed boundary survey without both. Measurements are needed to confirm monument locations and to compare record measurements. Physical evidence evaluation is needed to determine if the proper property corner monument or boundary line is being measured (or measured to).

Modern technology provides surveyors with the ability to measure with accuracy, at a scale, in places that they never had before. This will benefit all land owners as we move into the future. At the same time, the skills of physical evidence evaluation are never more important. Boundary surveyors need to learn to effectively practice both skills: that of accurate measurement and that of physical evidence evaluation.

The Role of Measurements in Boundary Surveying
What is the appropriate role of measurements in boundary surveying?

I think a definition of surveying from my surveying professor at Flathead Valley Community College provides a good start to understanding the proper role for measurements in a boundary survey. When I asked him what a surveyor was, he said, quite simply: "A land surveyor is an expert measurement maker."

That is a pretty profound statement in the context of our current discussion. It raises an important question: Why has society entrusted boundary surveyors with the sacred responsibility of parcel boundary location? Was this trust given because of our excellent knowledge of boundary law?

Was this trust given because of our forensic abilities? Was it given because of our skill as outdoorsmen?

Nope. Nope. Nope.

This trust was given because of our ability to measure accurately. This is what sets us apart from all other professions: Knowledge of measurement. The skills we’ve gained in boundary law, land planning, evidence evaluation, and outdoor craft are in support of and complement this core skill. At its heart, boundary surveying is about the craft of measurement. This craft can’t be ignored by surveyors who care only about the evaluation of physical evidence. How can a boundary surveyor completely evaluate the physical evidence he finds without measurements? This is impossible.

Surveyors that reject modern measuring technology because it is abused by ignorant or unethical surveyors do a great disservice to their clients and their communities. Never before has there been such wonderful opportunities use technology to:
1. Record the evidence found during our surveys.
2. Record the results of our surveys.
3. Put land parcel boundary information on common reference systems.
4. Share all of the data based on a common reference frame with one another.

A Generation Gap
As I conclude this article, I will attempt to address the big pink elephant in the room. I suspect the two conflicting viewpoints we’ve discussed in this article are based (at least in large part) on a generation gap.

On one side of the gap are older surveyors who value the craft of boundary surveying as it has been practiced for many years. These surveyors may be uncomfortable with new technology. They’ve seen non-surveyors use technology to encroach on their practice, and they’ve seen technology abused by dangerous and ignorant people.

On the other side of the gap are younger surveyors quick to embrace new technology. These surveyors, because of their inexperience and fascination with technology, may be too quick to trust the answer provided by their expensive gadgets. They can ignore the physical evidence right at their feet, to the detriment of all future surveyors and the impacted land surveyors.

Older land surveyors need to learn to respect technology and what it can do. Technology isn’t going away, even if we make attempts to constrain it with legislation.

Younger land surveyors need to respect those older surveyors who practice the art of craft of boundary surveying, and they need to learn from these surveyors. They must recognize their measuring gizmos are only tools, and not silver bullets. They have to see beyond the screen of the data collector.

isn’t dead yet. In fact, it is thriving. If more accurate measurements are used by our profession properly, evaluation of physical evidence in our boundary surveys will only benefit.

Note: You can visit the Footsteps blog for a description of how measurement technology can be used to improve the practice of boundary surveying on a large geographic scale.

Landon Blake is currently project manager and project surveyor for a small civil engineering and land surveying company in California’s Central Valley. Licensed in California and Nevada, his many activities include speaking and teaching at group conferences around the state.

A 278Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE