Who Owns Survey Information?

May 2004 » Columns » GEOMATICS
In many ways, survey plat recordation statutes now on the books in many states are an attempt to require surveyors to disclose information resulting from their work. Such laws, however, do not necessarily cover all situations.
Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E.

Surveyors, adjoining property owners, and others sometimes request information developed during a survey. Some surveyors cooperate, charging where appropriate for materials and time. Sometimes, however, the data is not released, based on a claim that such information "is my property," or "my client's property."

Surveying jobs may be ordered by and delivered to parties other than landowners. Some treat documents reporting the results of the survey, including maps and plats, as if they are the property of the person who paid for the work. Others consider them the property of the person who ordered the survey or of the persons who required it, even though they didn't pay for it. And when, for whatever reason, the survey is not recorded in an office of public records, it gets even more confusing because there is no overt public notice.

It is not my purpose in this column to dwell on the legal rights or responsibilities people may or may not have to access or to keep secret survey information. Rather, I want to focus on the surveyor's function when it comes to surveys involving property boundaries, and how the greatest good might be achieved. The opinions are my own, developed through my experiences as a surveyor; though they certainly are influenced by reading and by interactions with other professional surveyors.

Whenever a line on a deed description is marked on the ground, the surveyor not only determines the "side" for which he or she is working, but also determines it for the adjoiner. The length and direction of the line can affect other landowners, if not directly, by subsequent surveys that may rely upon the first determination. As finders of fact, the determination should be done without regard for which side pays. But even when done impartially, there may be reasons to not disclose the reasoning, facts, and other evidence by which the determination was made. Sometimes, even the fact that a determination was made is kept as obscure as the situation allows.

Fear of challenges or disputes regarding the location of the line may be a reason that some use to conceal the determination. Other times, it is because the determination was a costly process and the client or the surveyor is reluctant to give the adjoiner the information for free. There are dozens of reasons why someone may choose not to divulge information. It also is likely that sometimes, the job of gathering the facts and making a determination to conclude a survey properly is not the most robust, and the surveyor is not willing to expose the methods to scrutiny and criticism.

Yet, as a profession that is licensed to practice for the public good, it can be argued that the public benefits only when the surveyor's work is exposed—including the underlying fact-finding and analysis. Practicing surveyors have run into, or at least heard of, situations where a property boundary location was relied upon to locate improvements on that property, such as a fence, driveway, utilities, garage, or the primary structure itself. Discovery of improvements that result in real or apparent encroachments on adjoining properties sometimes throws residents or adjacent occupants into an uproar, especially if it turns out that the triggering event brings to light other apparent encroachments. When the courts get involved, decisions often are made on the basis of least disrupting the lines of long occupation, though such decisions cannot be guaranteed. In any case, many neighborhood discussions take place—some heated—and most with a layperson's understanding of the issues, resulting in many misunderstandings.

Full disclosure of the deed line location methods and procedures allows fellow experts to understand and use the conclusions for their own work. The public's right to benefit from this information could lead to fewer conflicting claims on the locations of property lines, more agreement among professionals about where the lines are, and more collaboration on protecting the vital evidence regarding the location of property lines so that future determinations and re-determinations will be accurate and consistent.

With public dialog and education, the surveyor might even be able to persuade property owners that they will use well-supported and reasoned principles to make determinations impartially and will consult with other professionals who also may have to play a part in resolving problems that might be discovered.

This cannot occur overnight, but by building healthier ways of sharing the information used by surveyors, the reliability and consistency so desired by the public and the profession will be served. Many surveyors already have decided independently to proceed this way. When will the profession as a regional, statewide, or national entity come to the same decision? If you believe such a direction is a good one, urge your fellow professionals, particularly within the organizations in which you belong, to take on this stance.

In many ways, survey plat recordation statutes now on the books in many states are an attempt to require surveyors to disclose information resulting from their work. Such laws, however, do not necessarily cover completely all situations where it might be desirable to access background research and analyses that are not necessarily disclosed in a map or plat.

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at paiva@cenews.com.


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