Boundary, Topographic, and ALTA Surveys
A Boundary Survey is a very detailed analysis of where a property is located in relation to all the other properties nearby. Surveys are performed by examining recorded documents, primarily deeds found in the County Register Recorders Office, but also maps, recorded or unrecorded, areas of occupancy, and also parole evidence such as valid information provided by talking to knowledgeable individuals familiar with where the boundary was understood to be. Many people would assume that Boundary Surveying is as simple as taking our instruments into the field and measuring the precise angles and distances that are recorded on the deeds. Unfortunately, that is very frequently far from the truth. In fact, unless the property is part of a more recent subdivision, that is actually rarely the case. That’s not to say your deed description is going to be bad or inaccurate. It may be that it just doesn’t “fit like a glove” to the other properties next to you. That doesn’t mean there is a problem. It just means that it needs to be clarified and certified.
A Professional Land Surveyor (PLS) is licensed to look at the evidence. They have completed the educational requirements, worked an apprenticeship to gain experience under another PLS and passed a series of State tests in order to earn their “Seal” which can be placed on a Boundary Survey Map.
A PLS will examine the recorded documents such as deeds, easements, rights-of-way and maps. Since no property line stands alone, any pertinent adjoining property is also researched. These are then plotted on specialized computer software. As stated above, rarely do the property descriptions “fit like a glove”. Our next step is to look at how the properties fit together in relationship to each other. We examine the relationship of the lengths and angles next to each other. Essentially, we take the pieces of the surrounding neighborhood properties and fit them together like a jig saw puzzle on the computer.
With this information in hand, we go to the site and begin looking for evidence of where the boundary line “appears to be”. Maybe we will find a corner pin, set stone, pipe, axle or other marker that is intended to mark the actual corner. Maybe we need to use our metal detector to find that corner buried several inches under dirt. Maybe we find a fence grown into a tree, or maybe even a tree that is referenced in a deed. Maybe we see an old timer who tells us that the 36” oak tree that the deed refers to as a corner died twenty years ago but the stump is still there and can show us that stump.
Each deed is different. The North bearing may be different than the adjoiner’s, the units may be different (such as the perch or rod which is equivalent to 16.5 feet) or the precision may be different (whole degrees vs. degrees, minutes, seconds or a whole perch vs. one hundredth of a foot). A deed written in whole degrees and whole perches is NOT INACURATE. It just is not as PRECISE as a deed written in degrees, minutes, seconds and hundredths of a foot.
What the public sees as surveying is a survey crew consisting of an instrument person and a rod person. While that is still true to some extent, there is so much more. Before the crew hits ground, the above steps must be completed. Only then do we start “measuring”.
The science of measuring has greatly changed over the years. The instruments that our nation’s Founding Fathers (many of them were also surveyors) through the time of another famous surveyor, Abraham Lincoln, all the way up to the time of our Companies founder, Leonard Meckley, utilized a theodolite consisting of a rotating magnifying “scope” to measure angles and a distance measuring tool that advanced from a prescribed number of links of prescribed length known as a Gunter’s chain to a steel tape. Today you may see a survey crew consisting of the instrument and rod person. However, the equipment will now be an electronic instrument that can measure angles to a second of a degree (1/360th) and an electronically measured distance to a prism held plumb over a point by the rod man with an accuracy of a hundredth of a foot (1/8th of an inch). In the days of old, all of the measurements from their equipment were meticulously written in a field book to be drawn with pencil or ink on paper. Our modern equipment measures the angle and distance, then allows us to place a descriptive note and stores it into our “data collector”. At the end of the job or day, we can then download this into our computer software and analyze the data. More recently, in terms of the many years of surveying history, the use of robotic equipment and GPS has come into play which allows time and labor saving.
The newer instrumentation allows for a much higher degree of precision to be obtained by the survey crew. It would be an error to assume that the more precise measurements automatically translate to a more accurate survey. As an example, a finely tuned rifle may shoot a bullet into the exact same hole. That would be very precise. However, if you missed the bulls eye by ten inches, that would not be very accurate. The PLS must take all of the measurements, all of the found evidence of the property lines, all of the recorded evidence and any other information that can be gathered and strive to one common end. Basically, that end is to determine what was the original intent of the very first conveyance of land and to what extent may have that conveyance changed over time.
Whereas a Boundary Survey focused on the location of a property line, a Topographic Survey is all about what is on the survey area. Frequently, the Boundary Survey is combined with the Topographic (aka Topo) Survey to develop a Base Plan Survey. Oftentimes, the owner of the property wishes to develop or create some special use for the property. It is important to know where any buildings, utilities, roads, driveways, natural features and so forth are located in relation to each other and the boundary. Also, the grade or slope of the land can be established to determine any drainage patterns or how much excavation is necessary to achieve the goals of the property owner. The methodology of a topo survey is similar to that described for a Boundary Survey and they are usually completed in tandem. The Topo Survey is then used to layout any improvements such as new construction of buildings, streets or driveways, drainage structures such as storm sewers, swales and ditches or utilities such as water or sewer lines.
An ALTA (American Land Title Association) Survey is also a combination of a Boundary Survey and a Topographic Survey. They have a more legalistic application and are prepared to a set of minimum standards that have been jointly prepared and adopted by the ALTA. Whereas the Base Plan Survey usually has a heavier importance on the elements on the ground, the ALTA Survey places a heavier importance on the property lines. It is the map document that goes hand in hand with the Title Insurance.
An ALTA Survey is often prepared for commercial properties. Commercial lending institutions frequently require a higher level of title insurance than a normal residential loan would require. The ALTA will provide the title company with the information required to insure title to the land and improvements insured. The PLS will be provided with a “Title Commitment” prepared by and official firm that provides title research. It is the job of the PLS to document on the Survey Plan where, how and to what extent each item that can be found in the title search effects the subject property. This will require the surveyor to be clear on the plan, but many times also work with legal personnel in order to help them understand the true and complete nature of each item found. If there are any defects in chain of title, encroachments on the property from an adjoining property, easements or rights-of-way or any other item that would affect the property, they must be addressed.
What We Do
We have been providing consulting and Survey Services to private entities and public municipalities for 50 years.