Writing a Good Narrative—The Land Surveyor’s Time Machine

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On many occasions I have wished for a crystal ball or a time machine to go back and visit an original surveyor to find out why he made a particular decision on a corner or a boundary.

How many of us at one time or another has had occasion to take a hard look at one of our old surveys and wondered what did I do, and how or why did I do that? Could we even follow our own footsteps without leaving adequate markers along the trail? This article is about leaving tracks for those that follow us. It is also about leaving a project history, and a personal legacy that we are proud of. Most importantly, we should aid others in understanding the decisions of our surveys, and allow our successors to honor and respect our decisions. Preparing a good narrative for a survey is an art that needs to be developed by each individual Land Surveyor.

When I have followed the work of a fellow surveyor, and the map explicitly tells me what was done, how it was done, and why it was done that way, it gives me confidence that the surveyor thought through the project and probably did it well. If there is little information and little support in the narrative and on the map, I begin to get suspicious that maybe the surveyor may not have done a complete job. The work of the first case allows me to "trust" it. In the second case, my initial trust level is low and the work would have to prove itself. Have you ever felt that way about another surveyor’s work?

How do we put our work in the first category rather than the second? The answer (besides good research, good fieldwork, and competent evaluation) is a good map with an excellent narrative. The narrative is the essential trail of footprints to be left by the surveyor preparing the record map. A narrative as defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus:
"narrative ­ adj. in story form n 1 a story; account 2 the art of or practice of narrating; a story-like, historical, sequential;"

A historical and sequential story is exactly what our narratives should be.

The requirements of a narrative in Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) Chapter 209 and the Oregon Administrative Rules only give basic guidelines that allow us to be creative in telling our story. It has been our experience that many times the survey narrative is an after-thought in the final preparation of a survey map. I say "our" experience because of the many conversations that I have had with other professional surveyors and coworkers on this topic. The best narratives are those that are included in the process of the boundary resolution from the very beginning. The process begins with a good understanding of the goal for the final product of your survey, and understanding how you are going to go about achieving that goal. The narrative is not just about giving statistics of your results or the type of equipment used, but is rather about leaving an understandable story (history) of your project so that others can easily follow the trail of your footsteps. Remember that this survey will be looked at and used (perhaps 100 years or more) after the map is filed. When reviewing some old surveys and public land corner records, I have often wished for a crystal ball or time machine to try and figure out what some surveyor did and why he did it. Your narrative should act as that time machine.

After reviewing and preparing many surveys in private and public capacities, I have found that the real proof of a survey is being able to write that story simply and clearly. If the narrative becomes a struggle to prepare you may have a problem with the resolution of that survey boundary, and may need to re-think parts of it. A good narrative will independently describe the basics of when, where, how, and why, for each boundary line of your survey. Think of it as describing each separate side of a polygon.

Oregon Revised Statutes Chapter 209.250 spells out time lines to follow when filing a survey and what other information is required, but the most important information is in Section (2), "Such permanent map shall have a written narrative that may be on the face of the map."

The narrative must (shall) explain: (must is a word that means: have to; be required to; requirement; need; obligation) (shall is a word that means: must; mandatory)
1. the purpose of the survey
2. how the boundary lines or other lines were established or reestablished
3. and must (shall) state which: deed records, deed elements, survey records, found survey monuments, plat records, road records or (any) other pertinent data, were controlling when establishing or reestablishing the lines.

Following is a breakdown of each of the required elements that make up the complete narrative:
1. The purpose of the survey: (asks the questions)
Why is this work being done? (This helps establish a motive for the survey.) Is it for construction of a new fence or a building on the line? Is it because of a lawsuit by a neighbor? Are the owners intending to ultimately divide the property? Is there some other special purpose for having this survey done? 
Who is this survey being done for? The owner, a buyer, a developer or other party. Always have a clear discussion with your client about the above issues. If you probe you might find that there is a dispute with a neighbor, or something else going on in the background other than "just find my boundaries please." Very few times will you find a potential client that just wants you to find his deed lines; what they really want to know is where their property is on the ground. As we all know, the property line on the ground can be significantly different than their deed. (See Traversing the Law, February 2006–The Boundary Surveyor’s Liability by Jeffery N. Lucas, PLS, Esq.)
The narrative (answer) that we usually see is that the purpose is to identify a recorders document number. Many times the document referred to is a mortgage or finance document and not a conveying deed. What it should say as the purpose, is "to identify the property ownership and boundary as indicated in a vesting deed recorded in document number `xyz’."
2. How the boundary lines or other lines were established (or reestablished). This question asks that you explain for each line (that makes the common connected polygon) of the boundary (and for other important lines that connect to that boundary), how you determined the location for those lines? Again, each line should be treated more or less separately. You will almost always have different deed records on different sides of the property, you will also have different surveys, plats and found monuments, and a road will almost always affect one or more lines. It is extremely important that you do not assume that everyone that picks up the map will easily and clearly understand it.
3. Must (shall) state which of the following were controlling when establishing or reestablishing the lines: deed records, deed elements,  survey records, found survey monuments, plat records, road records, or  any other pertinent data.
This asks you to be very specific and detailed. You need to recite more than the deed document number; you need to cite the specific element or part of the deed. Was a monument called? What about occupation and unwritten title? Do you have a junior or senior deed along that specific line? Are there calls to adjoining properties in the deed? One side of a property may be junior to the adjoining property where the opposite side may be senior. Often overlooked are scrivener’s changes that have been made in the description of the property since it was originally created? Where in the chain of title did those scrivener’s changes occur? Was there a prior survey that established the property being surveyed or the adjoining property? Is there occupation that matches the prior survey or deed lines? Were the previous surveys, an original survey, a first survey, or a resurvey? Is this property in a plat or adjacent to platted property? Are you finding gaps or overlaps, or are you just "winning the measuring contest?" It is also important to remember there were bonafide legal surveys conducted in this state prior to the filing act requirement.

In summary, the bottom line to a good narrative (story) are clear details of the history of the property, and what specific parts of the deed(s) and surveys were used, and how were they used. We have been told many times that one of the best ways to test your narrative is to have someone else read it for understanding, barring that put it down for several days and then pick it up and try to read and understand it as if you had never seen the project previously.

Remember, it is only your reputation on the line with each survey that you undertake. 

Note: This article originally appeared in The Oregon Surveyor, Vol 40 No 3, and is reprinted with permission.

Carl Clinton is a Licensed Land Surveyor in Oregon and Washington. He attended OTI (predecessor to Oregon Institute of Technology), graduating in 1967. Carl served as Clackamas County Surveyor (2011-2016) and was Deputy County Surveyor (1993-2011). From 1968 until 1993 he was a crew member, project surveyor and Survey manager at several firms in the greater Portland area. Carl began reviewing other surveyors work as Survey Manager and as a contract City Surveyor (1983-1993), and contract Deputy (1985-1993) for Clackamas County.

Following is an actual narrative taken from Clackamas County Survey Records – Survey Number (SN) 26443 by Don Devlaeminck, PLS #1634. This narrative together with the notes on the map pages (2) of the survey, comprise an excellent model for a narrative and map. In the case of the map, the monument notes and fallings are adjacent to each found monument and are not in a separate table. This provides a preferable format that is much easier to read and understand.

Narrative and Notes
1. Client: Sunset View Associates LLC. 425 N. W. 18th Avenue, Suite 3 Portland, Oregon 97209

2. Basis of bearings: the line between the found 2 inch iron pipe with brass cap stamped "Chula Vista Heights No. 11, Initial Point D.E.A. Inc. 1987" at the southwest corner of lot 1, "Westview" and the found 5/8 inch iron rod with yellow plastic cap stamped "DEA Inc." at the most southerly corner of lot 29, "Westvlew", shown as n. 89° 33′ 48" w. on the plat of "Westvlew", was used as the basis of bearings for this map.

3. The purpose of this survey is to define the boundaries of the proposed plat of "Sunset View P.U.D." the vesting deed for the subject property is bargain and sale deed recorded under fee number 95-28756, Clackamas County deed records. The property shown on this survey is subject to a deed reservation or exception, which reserved any portion of the above described lands which may be mineral lands, other than coal or iron. The reservation was contained in deed recorded October 10, 1891 in book 44, page 445, Clackamas County deed records.

4. The east line of this survey is the dividing line between the east half and the west half of the southwest 1/4 of the southwest 1/4 of section 27, T.1S, R.2E, W.M. To establish the position of this line, it was necessary to subdivide section 27 into quarters and to then subdivide the southwest 1/4 of section 27 into quarters as shown on the attached map.

5. The south line of this survey follows the south line of section 27, T.1S, R.2E, W.M.

6. A conflict exists along the west line of the subject property. present and past deeds for the subject property would place its west line 360 feet west of the east line of the west one-half of the southwest 1/4 of the: southwest 1/4 of section 27, T.1S., R.2E., W.M. The deeds for many of the adjoining properties to the west of the subject property would place their east lines 300 feet east of the west line of the southwest 1/4 of section 27. As can be seen, the distances called for in the various deeds for the subject property as well as the adjoining properties to the west adds up to 660 feet in the east-west direction. These figures were undoubtedly based upon the assumption that section 27 was exactly one mile square as was theoretically the case.
In reality, based upon this survey, the actual ground distance between the southwest corner of section 27 and the southeast corner of the west 1/2 of the southwest 1/4 of the southwest ¼ of section 27 is 655.60 feet versus a theoretical distance as cited in the deeds of 660 feet. The parent deed for the subject property which originally established the subject parcel is Warranty Deed from M.A. Kellum to Gerhard Goetze and Eva M. Goetze recorded 3/11/41 in book 278, page 99, Clackamas County deed records. The parent deed for the adjoining properties to the west is warranty deed from M.A. Kellum to Donald S. Johnston and Vera H. Johnston recorded 3/17/41 in book 278, page 285, Clackamas County deed records. Although the parent deed for the subject property is senior to that of the property to the west, several surveys performed on said property to the west have established and monumented its east line by measuring 300 feet easterly from the west line of the southwest 1/4 of section 27. in addition, several of the current deeds for adjoining properties to the west (such as deeds recorded under fee numbers 88-39157, 93-83167, 70-24348, and 91-00414) have actually called monumentation that is referred to on one of these surveys, namely survey "m-92". Furthermore, in some cases, fence lines have been placed along this monumented line. It is clear, based upon a review of the parent deed for the adjoining properties to the west that the intent was that it receive only the remainder after the east 360 feet of the west 1/2 of the southwest 1/4 of the southwest 1/4 was cut out. To resolve this conflict, quit claim deeds are presently being prepared to release any interest the grantee for the subject property may have in land to the west of the west line of this survey. The west line of this survey follows the line as monumented by prior surveys in the area (p.s. 13157, p.s. 19151, and m-92 as well as an unrecorded survey by "Maris").

7. The position and alignment of Idleman Road (County Road no. 1115) is based upon the alignment of Idleman Road as depicted upon the plat of "Westview" (plat no. 2914) which I previously surveyed in October 1990, using the monumentation found, as shown, as well as traverse control points in the vicinity of this project which were previously established during the initial outbounds field survey for the plat of "Westvlew" (plat no. 2914).

8. It should be noted that this survey makes reference to several monuments found along the perimeter of the subject property which have aluminum caps stamped "Maris" on top. Although some of these monuments were held by this survey and the positions of others are noted as shown, no record of their origin with regards to a survey map was found. Accordingly, it is possible that there may be additional monuments of this type in and around the subject property.

9. The location of the 50 foot wide access easement (often times referred to as Champagne Lane) as depicted on this survey, is based upon the location of the monuments found, as shown. This location does not conform to the location as cited in various deeds. By deeds, the west line of Champagne Lane is located 125.00 feet east of the west line of the southwest quarter of section 27. It is beyond the scope of this survey to address this conflict.

A 2.778Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE