Vantage Point: Headlines That Make Surveyors Great Conversationalists

A 868Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Who says surveyors don’t matter? I find myself explaining a variety of real property details to neighbors, township commissioners, family members, colleagues, and a host of others when certain headlines generate discussion. The topics of discussion are far ranging. What are the rights of a utility company to expand its facilities within its easements without the additional structures or wires or boxes being considered an additional burden on the landowner’s rights? What are the rights of natural gas companies to withdraw water from aquifers for hydraulic fracturing to the point that wells run dry or are tainted? Can a railroad company require a township to pay for track repairs when the township decides to move a road that crosses those tracks? People care about these kinds of matters because they see how they relate to private property rights, to the intricate cost/benefit balances between environmental and business interests, and to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

Such headlines provide us with opportunities to show how wide-ranging surveyors’ knowledge is, and how we can help people either by providing explanations and answers or guiding them to others with the appropriate expertise. I’ll take just four recent examples of news articles that generated a fair amount of discussion in my community, each of which opened some very interesting conversations.

The City of Philadelphia has a longstanding situation referred to as "tangled titles", referring to situations in which where the person living in a house and claiming ownership is not listed on the deed. Such individuals have invested a lot of time and money into their homes over the years, including payment of taxes. But they do not have the right to sell the properties or to fight anyone else who may claim ownership of the property. Reasons for such situations can be that the owner listed on the deed is deceased or that the present occupants reside there under rent-to-own agreements. Administrative costs for processes to cure these problems may prove to be too much for individuals and families with low incomes. There are fees to file for probate to open a deceased person’s estate. City and state transfer taxes must be paid to record a deed to change the owner’s name, which in Philadelphia amounts to 4.1% of the property’s value. So the headline "City must save neighborhoods from the tangled-title epidemic" refers to the difficult and expensive legal investigations and filings to clear up thousands of titles ­ and volunteer work by local attorneys to assist in resolving one complicated case at a time.

The tiny borough of Narberth just down the road from my home has several old churches that no longer house congregations. Some have been "repurposed", but some have been threatened with razing if developer plans are not approved. One church’s new owner had plans for residential reuse that were acceptable to some neighbors and abhorrent to others. But suddenly the local news shouted these words: "1891 deed puts possible wrinkle in church site plans." Uh oh, there are restrictions to use only as a church. Not only are the current redevelopment plans now down the tubes, so are any other possible plans for anything other than a house of worship, whether in the current building or in a new one erected on site. What’s a borough to do?

As we move across the Delaware River to Elk Township, we find the headline, "Upset at road, N.J. Landowner fences it off." Each time the township re-paved the public road that this gentleman’s property fronted upon, it encroached a little further beyond the stated right of way width onto his presumably unencumbered land. His requests for the township to remove the offending asphalt fell on deaf ears, as did later demands for compensation for taking his private property for public use (based on constitutional protections). Fed up, he decided to fence in his property, for which the deed ran to the centerline of the road right of way. That earned him a lot of attention. After citing him for creating a safety hazard and then facing a day in court, the township did eventually remove the excess black top. Clue to the outcome: there were no prescriptive rights beyond the statutory right of way.

The real estate section of the news (whether on-line or paper) often carries an advice column, and the one most recently attracting my attention addressed rights to remove roots from a neighbor’s tree that were running under the writer’s driveway, causing it to buckle. The captivating headline read, "When a tree invades, who pays?", referring to the damage to the driveway. Did the writer have the unilateral right to remove the tree roots? The columnist pointed out that the writer had no right to injure or kill a neighbor’s tree by cutting roots that were essential to the tree’s survival, and noted that an arborist would best be able to identify what roots could be trimmed by how much before repairing the driveway. However, the columnist acknowledged that the roots presented a safety hazard that could cause a trip and fall accident. His final advice was to approach the neighbor with a pitcher of iced tea or a beer and work it out together.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 868Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.