Larry Bade, a registered Professional Land Surveyor of Lewis-Bade, Inc., a survey and civil engineering company, has experienced many changes in land surveying in the past 47 years. In the old days, a survey crew consisted of 3 or 4 men. Two men would be hacking down the brush and small trees to create a line of sight. The equipment consisted of a transit or theodolite, a measuring chain, range poles, and a field book or legal pad for notes.
Back at the office, the surveyor would research the deeds to the property and surrounding properties by spending hours in the county recorder’s office. He would obtain and review surveys in the area. Then, with the crew chief’s field notes and the information gathered from his research, he would sit at the drafting table with logarithm tables and maybe a slide rule, plotting the property boundaries by hand and writing the legal description. The accuracy of the survey depended upon the experience and knowledge of the survey crew and the surveyor. That was in the past.
Recently, I sat down with Mr. Bade to discuss the survey business. We talked about the impact that technology and the internet have had on surveying. Mr. Bade also spoke about some of the old problems that still exist today.
Land surveying has been, and continues to be, Bade’s career and profession. He’s a 1969 University of Missouri graduate with a degree in civil engineering. After serving in the U.S. Army as an artillery surveyor, Mr. Bade began his career in 1972 with Robert Lewis, Warren County surveyor. Within a few years, Lewis & Associates was formed. Today, the company has two engineers, three land surveyors, two survey crews, and support staff. The two survey crew party chiefs have been with the company for 31 years and 46 years.
Now, when a survey is ordered, the surveyor begins by gathering information. Whether the survey is for just one property line or an entire property, the same research is required.
Deeds to the subject property and all adjoining properties are obtained and reviewed by the surveyor. In the past, the surveyor would spend hours traveling to the county recorder’s office, finding and making copies of deeds and then going back to his office to review each deed. Today, the internet lets the surveyor access the county assessor’s Geographic Information System (GIS) website. There, he obtains the book/page number of the client’s property’s current deed, adjoining properties’ owners’ deeds, names, addresses, etc. With this information, the surveyor orders, pays for, and receives the deeds by email from the county recorder of deeds.
The surveyor also obtains a copy of the assessor’s aerial photo of the properties. The property lines shown on the assessor maps are only approximate. All county assessors post either a notice on their wall or on each photo; this property ownership map is for tax purposes only. It is not intended for conveyances, and neither is it a legal survey.
The next step is to access the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) website to obtain an index of all surveys recorded in a specific section or U.S. survey in the area of the proposed survey. After viewing the index, some or all the existing surveys are ordered, paid for, and sent by e-mail to the office. This information is then plotted on paper to be used by the field crew, surveyor, and/or support staff to be reviewed and analyzed. In the past, the surveyor would have to search through the recorder’s office for any surveys of record. Twenty years ago, the copies could be requested from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Then, the surveyor would wait 10 days for delivery. Now, with the internet, the information arrives in a few minutes.
Unfortunately, not all surveyors recorded their surveys. These unrecorded surveys usually came to the attention of the surveyor when the crew chief found the old markers while surveying the subject property. In the past 20 years, surveyors have been required to place their license numbers on the property corner marker, which has made it easier to find unrecorded surveys.
When no surveys are available, the surveyor contacts the MDA to obtain G.L.O. (General Land Office) plates, field notes, and/or corner monument data for section corners. This information is available on the MDA website. This is one of the reasons that the survey crew may have to begin the survey more than a mile away from the subject property.
Once the information is assembled, the surveyor begins. He plots the legal descriptions from the client’s deed and adjoining owners’ deeds. Depending upon the number of properties, the surveyor will dedicate from one hour to two days to plotting, assembling, and fitting everything together, which is comparable to solving a giant puzzle. Sometimes, one or more legal descriptions do not “fit,” creating either gaps or overlaps. This often happens because a legal description has been mistyped by someone who is not a surveyor. When this happens, the surveyor calls on his experience for the solution.
Another challenge for the surveyor is the deed with vague boundary descriptions. This can occur when an owner sells a portion of the property to a neighbor, friend, or relative without a survey. On the day the description was written, all those corners were easy to find, but fifty years later, most are gone. If the people who made the transaction are available, then the task is more manageable, but if not, then the surveyor tries to determine their intent.
When the surveyor has completed his study and has plotted all properties, he prepares his calculations and downloads the computations from the computer onto the total station and data collector for the survey crew.
The $5,000 total station is a theodolite (traditional land survey tool), which includes an electronic distance measurement device (EDM). It also measures angles and slopes.
The $2500 data collector is a handheld device that connects thru Bluetooth or cable to the total station for downloading and transferring data.
Other tools in the surveyor’s toolbox could be a robotic total station ($38,000) or GNSS VRS ($24,000). This instrument can connect to the global positioning system (GPS). This information, along with a preliminary drawing of the survey, is handed to the survey crew so they can begin the field work.
Each crew may consist of a party chief and a rodman. The party chief no longer uses a transit and instead uses the total station and data collector, or one of the other GPS devices. As readings are taken and stored in the total station, the crew chief writesnotes in the field book. These notes include the readings from the total station, the data collector, and features such as fences, roadways, etc. Temporary markers are placed at the corners and along the lines. Once the field work is completed, the survey crew returns to the office.
The surveyor downloads the computations from the total station and data collector to the computer. The field notes are then plotted in the computer and on the inkjet plotter (not by hand anymore). He reviews all field book notes. Once all calculations are confirmed, the survey plat and legal description are prepared. Each survey must meet the standards set forth by the state of Missouri.
The survey crew returns to the property and places the permanent pins at the corners and stakes the lines. The surveyor then puts his seal on the survey and records in the county records. Hard copies are emailed and mailed to the client and title company.
Technology has made a significant impact on today’s land surveying process. The newest in high-tech surveying equipment and trained operators have improved the accuracy of surveys, but these have also increased costs. Moreover, like most new tech tools, they become outdated before the “new” has worn off!
The internet websites that have speeded up the transfer of information may be available only with subscription fees.
Before the new technology, Lewis & Bade Inc. had one surveyor. Today, three surveyors and support staff are needed to process the data.
A survey made by a modern surveyor today is an investment, not a cost. I don’t know of a buyer and/or seller who regretted having made the investment. However, I do know some who wish they had.