Thought Leader: Land Ownership is Too Important to Be Left to Land Specialists

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A while back I was searching the Internet for an old treatise on land titles. A Google query yielded a book published in 1914. The author was Charles Claudius Kagey and the book was titled "Land Survey and Land Titles, a book for boys and girls, a reference volume for property owners, a text for students in the laws of real property, a library of elementary principles respecting the division of our land and the laws relating to its ownership". The subtitle of this book makes sense once the author reveals he was a teacher before he became a title examiner. He apparently believes public education should offer students the opportunity to learn something about a subject that affects their lives. After skimming through the pages of the book, I got the impression the author had written a book for different ages and interests. The author’s stated aim was "to help the property owner know and those who contemplate buying a home to understand the simpler rules of procedure for their own protection….that the work may create a better sentiment from the property owner for the abstracter." The preface of the book (see illustration) contains a concise and compelling statement why everyone needs to develop basic competence in matters related to land ownership.

Part of the history of this country is the transformation of the wilderness into public lands and private property. The process of converting land into property seems straight forward: measure some lines, mark some boundary corners and prepare some documents. What could go wrong? All practical acts are subject to mistakes, imperfections and degradation due to the passage of time. Further the machinations of markets which can quickly convert a good fortune in property into one that is less so. Preserving an investment in land requires owners to possess knowledge and exercise vigilance. This would be easier if each parcel of land came with buyers guide and an owner’s manual.

Mr. Kagey’s 100+ year old message remains relevant today–Land ownership is too important to be left solely in the hands of technical specialists. It is also too complex for the do-it-yourselfer. A self-reliant person may need to recognize when they need the help of a qualified professional to do what needs to be done. And life in the community is better when neighbors agree on certain matters, such as where one property ends and another begins. In many respects, land ownership is a cooperative effort which yields mutual advantages for those involved. Cooperation depends on some commonly held knowledge. Surveyors can play a role in informing people so they make good decisions about land ownership, but they need to do this long before these same people encounter the various purveyors of inaccurate or incomplete information. Some of these purveyors are educated and articulate, but don’t realize that some of what they know simply ain’t so. Replacing misinformation with reliable information can be doubly difficult. First a person has to unlearn something and then learn something else.

The institution of property is based on concepts that perhaps only a professional can understand, but its integrity is influenced by the day to day acts of people who are less informed. For example, each day people go to work in jobs that end up disturbing or destroying boundary monuments–even the inexperienced land surveyor has been known to do this. People prepare documents with words without understanding their meaning–ditto. This is just a sample of well-intended acts that can have unintended consequences which are costly to correct. In theory, the institution prohibits certain behavior that can degrade its performance. In practice, there are limited ways to prevent it. As a result, adverse effects can accumulate and diminish the institutions capacity to do what it was designed to do–produce certainty at a reasonable cost. Ponder for a moment the social and economic costs that are incurred in resolving boundary dispute brought on by faulty documents or the absence of boundary evidence. This may create work for land surveyors and other professionals, but the net effect represents economic loss.

Surveyors are interested in promoting their profession. There is a lot of interest in using STEM to engage others in discussions about the technical aspects of what surveyors do. As interesting as science, technology and math may be, land and its ownership are likely to be more important in people’s lives. This is the notion that prompted Mr. Kagey to do what he did 100+ years ago. The subject matter can be just as fascinating and profitable as STEM, maybe more so because the object lessons are found everywhere in daily life. Further, there is more to surveying than STEM. While there is a lot of STEM involved in the design and manufacture of a robot, drone or other automated systems that surveyors use, the typical user only uses a fraction of this knowledge to operate the system. Professional surveyors also draw upon knowledge of anthropology, government, history and law in order to do what they do. This greatly expands the pool of people who might have an interest in the surveyors work. So the next time you plan to talk with a group of math students at the local school, see if a civics or geography class may want to hear a presentation about surveying. And don’t forget to mention something about land and its ownership. These few seeds of information could cause a person to consider a career in surveying or to learn more about one of the most significant purchases they make in life.
Lee Lovell is a registered land surveyor in Colorado and Nebraska and has accumulated 34 years of professional experience. He resides in Parker, Colorado where he was part of Western States Surveying for 20+ years.

A 534Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE