Thought Leader: Our Own Worst Enemy

A 82Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

These days, I spend more time trying to protect surveyors from themselves, than anything else. It is a new facet of land surveying I would prefer didn’t exist. Unfortunately, it is expanding and it is a problem that is plaguing the land surveying profession and, regrettably, it is getting worse. In the way of a brief background, much of what I do involves litigation and expert testimony related to boundary disputes, easement conflicts, and other matters relating to the determination of boundary lines. In other words, it involves land surveying, once the exclusive purview of the Professional Land Surveyor. It is now commonplace as everyone measures. Why? Because "they have programs that do that" don’t they?

In an odd twist of technological regression, land surveying has somehow become defined by the advancement of technology, without the involvement of land surveyors. Everyone else is telling us how to survey and for many, everyone else is right. Instead of taking the lead in the evolution of surveying calculations, advancing technologies such as GPS, GIS, CAD, and Google tools, far too many Land Surveyors are allowing both the methodologies and the equipment tell them how to do their work.

Several years I was involved in what is becoming a far too frequent boundary dispute between two warring neighbors. The issue involved a panhandle access to the rear lot. According to the applicable zoning regulations, the panhandle needed to be twentyfeet wide. Due to a problem with the exterior boundary lines, the neighbor’s surveyor applied a mathematical procedure that resulted in a panhandle with a width of 19.5 feet, something that was obviously unacceptable.

The matter ended up in court and when my client’s attorney asked the other surveyor how he established the width of the panhandle, he replied by stating, he pushed a button in AutoCAD. When asked what formulae were used, his answer was "I don’t know. I pushed a button and the program gave me the answer." That was an answer the court didn’t care for. His client not only lost the case, but the other surveyor was threatened with a lawsuit for slander of title.

A similar problem arose in another case wherein a surveyor gathered a large volume of GPS data. The work proved defective and the errors were scattered about, and irreconcilable. When I queried the surveyor about the gathering of the data, error ellipses and other pertinent information, he produced a printout of coordinates and indignantly proclaimed, "Here!"

As with the other surveyor, he too is being sued as his faulty work resulted in some $30,000 worth of damages. As best we can tell, he elected to adopt a new set of coordinates every day, never bothering to tie everything together. "The GPS said this is where I am and this is where I am."

At the risk of sounding like the cranky old man and one of his "when I was your age" stories, when I began my surveying career, some 45 years ago, there were limited electronic tools for calculations. Consequently, a surveyor needed to possess a rather intimate understanding of mathematics and the relationship between the things we did. In order to perform a mathematical calculation, the process was somewhat labored. On the bright side, a competent Land Surveyor could anticipate the results of a calculation. Regrettably, that is not the case today. Modern technology and sophisticated programs perform calculations and solve problems quite efficiently. Unfortunately, the user has no idea how the values were derived. Indeed, far too many times, when I question a Land Surveyor about his or her solutions, he/she usually gets indignant and declares, "What is wrong with you Pallamary? The value is to the nearest thousandth."

It is usually at that point that I move on to other things like calculating the size of Puerto Rico using Google Maps.

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.

A 82Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE