The Curt Brown Chronicles: Land Movements and Boundaries

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Curt was always fascinated with the unexpected and the unexplained. Many of his concerns were to be shaped by laws that yet to be written; eventually some rules would evolve and he often wondered how that would happen. While many of the laws that govern our land are derived from Roman laws and those from England, others were home grown, as the seeds were planted in New England and later, after the United States developed the sectionized system of land subdivision, from our own country.

As Curt knew and many surveyors are learning, sometimes the hard way, land values and refined measuring capabilities have had a dramatic influence on how boundary lines are determined and, eventually resolved. Upon considering Curt’s comments below, I believe one of his most important observations involves surveyors being "bombarded" with "fixed" coordinates. From my perspective, this information creates a delusion of security. When you factor in the "Gee-I-Google" mentality, this problem becomes more knotty and, as alluded to by Curt, is leading to more problems. He was always suspect and concerned with the impacts upon surveyors once refined positioning became commonplace. With what appears to be increasing land movement, the role and value of so-called fixed coordinates diminishes the value of the entire system and once again, boundary survey logic must control the location of property lines; GPS and the values derived from this electronic measuring tool are, by necessity, subordinate to reason, logic, and law.

When Curt wrote this article, the Big Mac was introduced at a cost of 49 cents and the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour.
—Michael J. Pallamary, PS

December, 1968
The fundamental principle of Land Surveying is: "The original position of a monument, if called for, is unalterable except by reconveyance." Since this principle is a rule of law, and since most laws have exceptions depending upon the circumstances, the rule of permanence of original monument positions does have several exceptions. One example is within the sectionalized land system wherein closing corners may be adjusted to the line closed upon. Also, as a general rule for all conveyances, if an original monument interferes with a senior right, it may be used to control the direction of a line but not its legal terminus.

Within these United States, land has changed its position by forces of nature and by long continued operations of man. Withdrawal of oil in the Long Beach area of California has caused a maximum vertical settlement of 27 feet and a maximum horizontal movement of 7 feet. In the San Joaquin Valley, water removal caused sufficient land settlement to cause water canals to overflow banks. Along the San Andreas Rift sudden horizontal shifts of 22 feet occurred in the earth’s crust. In the San Francisco earthquake, a sidewalk running from the front door of a house to the street was severed and displaced approximately 20 feet. Imagine walking out your front door and finding part of your sidewalk 20 feet to the north! In this earthquake, similar shifts occurred along fence lines. The question facing the land surveyor is, "Does the boundary line follow the soil or does the former absolute position control title location"?

Landslides are earth movements. During the Alaskan earthquake, the shaking caused saturated ground to change from a jelled mass to fluid. The surface soil flowed into Cook Inlet. The more usual type of slide occurs on a hillside wherein a portion of the hill, wet by rain or irrigation, slides down the hill.

Migrating land boundaries are caused by the forces of flowing water. For now, it is sufficient to mention that the usual rule for erosion and accretion is that the riparian owner loses land eroded away and gains land added by slow and imperceptible accretions.

The question to be explored is: "How does the surveyor correctly monument land boundaries after a land movement has occurred?" The problem will ultimately be resolved by court decision. But before a decision can be derived, someone must present a logical hypothesis to the court. The court does not answer questions, which are not in issue before it. Usually the surveyor is called upon to set monuments on the ground and to express his opinion. If someone objects, the matter is often appealed to the courts. Thus, the surveyor is frequently the one who collects evidence and presents a recommendation of what should be done.

The following thoughts are offered on the problems. Obviously, not all proposed solutions are founded upon court decision, since in many earth movement situations court cases are not to be found.

For a sudden rupture of the earth’s surface along a distinct cleavage line, as in the San Francisco and Brawley (Imperial Valley) earthquakes, the proposed rule for locating sheared land boundaries is, "The same owner owns the same land occupied prior to the movement. Former straight lines jog at the line of cleavage." This rule presents some discomfort in the case of highway displacement, as occurred in Imperial Valley, where the road shifted about 8 feet horizontally. The right of way now jogs 8 feet at the line of cleavage. Since the road had to be patched with two triangular slivers at this point, the rule seems reasonable. It is conceivable that with a shift of a hundred feet a road right of way might be discontinuous. As an incidental result of these earthquakes, new surveyors coming into the area have been somewhat puzzled by the lack of agreement between their measurements and the record measurements.

On a sand spit, measurements were made after an earthquake and compared with accurate measurements made prior to the earthquake. The average elongation in an N 32 degrees E direction was 1.01 feet per hundred feet. The average elongation at 90 degrees, or S 58 degrees E, was 0.009 foot per hundred feet. Visible ruptures or cleavage lines in the sand were not observable. However, irregular separations did occur in sidewalks, concrete paving, etc., usually at joints. This type of separation could be expected since concrete can slide on sand. For this type of earth movement the logical rule is: "Where there is elongation or compression due to earth movements and cleavage lines are not present, the elongation or shortening should be prorated between nearest original positions as determined by acceptable possession or monument evidence.

Man-caused subsidence by withdrawal of ground fluids is slow and imperceptible with time. If an area is densely built upon by streets, buildings, utilities and other man – made objects, and if fluids are withdrawn from the earth, and if horizontal shifts up to several feet occur, do ownership lines move with the earth or do they retain their absolute position? It would be an unacceptable hypothesis that the owner of a building, no matter how large or how small, would retain land in its absolute position relative to a coordinate position. Otherwise, a person owning a building today might find his building on another’s land in the future. Title must shift with the surface movement. Obviously, at a distance from where the settlement is taking place, the surface will remain unchanged in position. In any area between the spot of maximum horizontal shift and the spot where no shift occurred, there would be some proportionate movement.

A suggested rule is: "Where there is gradual elongation or compression of the earth’s surface caused by withdrawal of subsurface fluids, ownership lines move with the shift in surface improvements and monuments."

the California coastline, southwesterly of the San Andreas Rift, there is a continual movement of the land in a northerly direction. Coordinate positions of monuments on each side of the rift are in constant, though imperceptible motion. Over a long span of time, the motion becomes measurable.

During recent years, surveyors have been bombarded with the advantages of fixed coordinate zones to control property lines. The shifting of land boundaries due to earth movements is one reason why the system can never become an absolute control, although the system may be a useful tool to help control locations. In reality, the usefulness of a coordinate system stems from nearby monuments, which also shift with earth movements. It is only when new coordinate numbers are assigned to an existing monument, or when a monument is moved to its former coordinate position, that troubles ensue.

In the event of slides, it is impossible to conceive that ownership would change with the flowing of the earth’s surface. In Alaska where the soil became fluid and ran into the ocean, it is probable that title follows the location as determined by bedrock. When land slides down a hill and monuments move with a slide, it is illogical that title would follow the soil of the slide. The rule suggested by this situation is: "Title location of land after a slide is determined by the title location of bedrock prior to the slide."

Ambulatory land boundaries can be caused by the forces of flowing water. This problem is discussed in another paper.

Author Michael Pallamary has compiled the writings and lectures of the late Curtis M. Brown. These works are published in The Curt Brown Chronicles.

A 363Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE