The Curt Brown Chronicles: Engineers and Surveying

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My recent article about the Civil Engineer who placed the $2M house in the wrong place, reminds me of Curt’s thoughts about Civil Engineers. When he was near his passing, he took it upon himself to discuss and write about many of the civil engineers who practiced in San Diego. Although he was respectful of Civil Engineers when they were engineering, he did not hold them in high regard when they were surveying. His observations are still relevant.
—Mike Pallamary, PS

August 1957
The property line surveyor is licensed in about 75% of the states. His primary function is to serve the public by re-establishing old property lines or setting new lines. The purpose of the law is to protect the public from unqualified surveyors. In general the land surveyor needs training in:
1. Mathematics
2. Drafting and map making skills
3. Instrumentation (use of transit, tape, level, etc.)
4. Surveying and geodetic computations
5. Writing and interpreting descriptions
6. Law

Most engineering colleges offer training in computations, mapping and instrumentation, but little or nothing in surveying law. A man may be a beautiful technician, a skilled mathematician, and an expert at making measurements, but of what value is his skill it he does, not know where to place a legal property corner? Almost 100% of the fault we find with the men we employ is their ignorance of where to place property corners. The objection is frequently raised that the subject of land law is not engineering. But is that true? Everyone is expected to obey the law and everyone is presumed to know the law. The property surveyor is licensed to set property corners and he is expected to set them in accordance with the correct principles of law. He is not practicing law; he is merely obeying law in the same fashion that you or I do when we obey the speed limit. And if land law is never engineering, why has the engineer from time immemorial had the task of locating right-of-way lines and property lines for his fixed works?

The one thing that elevates the property surveyor above the technician is his knowledge of where to place property corners. Thus, in a given property description there may be conflicts due to senior considerations, intentions of the parties, record monuments, natural or artificial monuments, lines marked and surveyed, distance, area, bearing, possession, mathematical error, magnetic or astronomic bearing or coordinates. There may be the problem of how to distribute accretions and the beds of vacated streets. And then title may be awarded on the basis of possession, rather than upon the existing written deeds.

To my knowledge only two colleges, San Francisco City College and San Diego Junior College, offer special classes in this important phase of the surveyor’s education. In fact the scarcity of material on the subject, other than in legal books, prompted me to do extensive research on the subject. Knowing the importance of surveying law, it has always puzzled me as to why so little of it has been offered at the college level.

The civil engineers wish to have all the privileges and rights of the licensed land surveyor, yet too frequently they do not recognize the responsibility of educating themselves for the duties involved. Thus, in the State of California the engineer is exempt from the surveyors act, and the engineers act does not specify that the engineer shall be qualified as a property surveyor. For this reason it has been the custom for only minor questions on surveying to be asked on the civil engineers registration examination. At the time the law was passed it was undoubtedly true that most civil engineers had better training in surveying. But today the picture has changed.

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 69Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Michael Pallamary, PS

Michael Pallamary, PS, is the author of several books and numerous articles. He is a frequent lecturer at conferences and seminars and he teaches real property to attorneys and other members of the legal profession. He has been in the surveying profession since 1971.