Boundary surveys (sometimes called "outline" surveys) determine the exact location of property lines and corners. Often thought to be a mechanical process wherein instruments are deployed and markers quickly set, in fact for most parcels the task is a bit more complicated than that. At the core of the problem is our old friend "measurement error." Remember learning back in your high school physics lab that all measurements, no matter how carefully obtained, have some amount of error? It turns out that surveying labors under that handicap as well. All measurements have error.

Having said that, there is not much detectable measurement error in modern surveys. Lasers, GPS equipment, modern instrument optics and better education for surveyors all combine to produce precision only dreamed about 40 years ago. (This is not to imply that we have banished all error from modern surveys, but measurement error has been reduced to amounts that hardly anyone cares about. Really.)

So What's the Problem?

The main problem is that our jig-saw puzzle of land parcels was not created after we made all those advances. It already existed. The Calverts were given Maryland by Charles I in 1632, and throughout the ensuing decades they carved out pieces to be sold or given away,* establishing new division lines between what was to be conveyed and the remainder. Those who received those early grants did the same, creating yet newer lines and so on. The process continues today when someone subdivides a parcel of land into two or more parts. Thus, every parcel in Maryland has a "genealogy" of sorts, and can be traced back through the records to the original patent. But, and this is the biggie, the precision of the surveys used to describe those land grants varied widely. Some were not-so-bad while others were, well, terrible.

Baltimore Tracts in 1786
A Messy Jig-saw Puzzle
(Click to enlarge)

Since the precision of many of these early surveys was so poor, overlaps and unintended gaps between parcels were frequent occurrances. Consequently, boundary disputes found their way into the court system. Maryland has hundreds of appellate cases concerning boundary disputes, and most, if not all, can be traced to the inability of early surveyors to render reliable measurements. (One venerable surveyor noted there were three requirements for a boundary dispute: 1. An ambiguous description of the property, 2. Neighbors who dislike one another, and 3. Enough money to do something about it!)

Faced with such a dilemma, the courts formulated certain rules of thumb to solve these recurring problems. The first rule was that older surveys trumped younger ones. Based on the theory that you can't sell what you don't own, the rule recognized that the younger figure could not extend out past the limits of its parent figure. That doctrine becomes central to our practice today, as we explain below. Second, no matter how difficult it might be to figure out what the surveyor of long ago did (or where he ran his lines), if it was valid when he did it, it's valid today. Third, the physical objects that the former surveyor left behind or observed matter more than his measurements. This has the practical effect of perpetuating the old lines; they rarely go away. Most of the changes across our land parcel maps are due to new lines (new lots and parcels, in other words) being added, not old lines disappearing.

So we have a great variety of property lines with different ages forming the legal limits of property. Only now we also have many intervening surveys and conveyances, most of which purport to identify where those original lines were. Some undoubtedly are correct, others undoubtedly are not. It's the boundary surveyor's task to find which is which.

So the real difficulty today is not to have measurements of which Mason and Dixon would be proud, but identifying the right spot to measure. We realize it sounds backwards at first glance, but there it is. The task is to follow in the footsteps of the original surveyor, no matter how flawed his technique or how deficient his writings. It's more like Columbo than Mason and Dixon.

How's it Done?

We begin this task by examining the property description in the deed to the property in question and in the deeds of all the properties surrounding it. This will alert us of any differences between them, and may prompt us to research further back in the "chain of title"--that genealogy above--to resolve the descrepancies. We also search out all the known former surveys in the proximity of the new work. Those documents reveal notations and observations not commonly included in deeds, and thus provide more insight into the lines under consideration. (This is where our extensive archives become important. They are not merely interesting artifacts, they inform our decisions in current work.)

Next we proceed on-site to find as many of the physical objects mentioned in the papers as we can. Obviously the more we find, the more confident we will be in determining where the property lines belong. Once we uncover the objects, we take measurements of their location, and bring all that data back to the office where we analyze both what we found and the deeds and surveys pertinent. Our goal is to make our lines match the location of the original surveyed lines, using the rules handed down by the courts. At the end of that analysis, we'll be able to express our opinion as to where the property lines lie. That's a boundary survey.

Telling the Story

The results of a boundary survey can be reported in a number of ways. One way is to draw a picture of the results, noting the measurements around the perimeter of the land and, perhaps, depicting other features like buildings, paving and fences. Such a drawing is called a plat. Or, the surveyor may be asked only to set markers at the property corners--in anticipation of fence construction, for instance. He or she might also be asked to write a metes and bounds description of the land. Such a description can be used in deeds or other legal documents to uniquely identify the property on the face of the earth. In some cases all three products will be appropriate. There is a cost associated with each of them, as each requires time to create, and we generally invoice based on the amount of time a task takes.

*That process is called "patenting" and the State of Maryland, acting as the successor to the Calverts, still grants the occasional patent when vacant land (land that either has never been patented, or has escheated back to the state) is found.

Copyright © 2015 S.J. Martenet & Co., Inc.