Zachary Garrett – Shawnee Professional Services
Surveyors are licensed under state laws in all fifty states; surveying is subject to regulation because their work pertains to the protection of property rights. How do surveyors protect property rights? By encouraging confidence in the integrity of property boundaries and providing an orderly approach to solving property line disputes; both of these benefits come from the informed, reliable opinion provided by the surveyor based on education, training, and experience. This is the most vital aspect of the services that surveyors provide. Accurate measurements and readable plats are helpful, but surveyors provide a basis for confidence, conflict avoidance, and conflict resolution when it matters most.
While there is no substitute for the professional opinion supplied by the surveyor, some stakeholders in the process want to take shortcuts. These stakeholders perceive that they are saving money, especially on low-value properties where the cost of a survey represents a large percentage of the property’s value. These shortcuts take many different forms – a reliance on tax maps or consumer-grade GPS products like those found on smartphones and in hiking equipment – but the common thread that connects them all is the perception that one is saving money or time, discounting the true value a surveyor provides.
In recent news, one attempt to shortcut the vital survey process comes from a Mississippi startup called Vizaline, which provides products to bankers which they describe as “a polygon of a particular property of interest”. Their product is called “Vizaplat”, which comes dangerously close to the name of the plat that a surveyor provides illustrating his or her legally authorized, professional opinion of property boundaries. Additionally, they describe themselves as a “GEO-Spatial Consultant”, which tests the boundaries of legality by marketing geospatial expertise – that is, the science of locating features on the surface of the earth – to those who rely on that expertise to make decisions with real financial consequences. In the October 2018 issue of POB, land surveyor and attorney Jeffery Lucas delivers a thorough exploration of the legal issues involved with service that Vizaline provides, but the primary sticking point is that Vizaline appears to be making judgments as to the location of property boundaries and encroachments. Otherwise, savvy clients could just use county tax maps, which are a notoriously unreliable indicator of property lines.
Worse, some commentators promote these services as a revolutionary transformation for stakeholders. On Bloomberg, a business website, opinion columnist Stephen Carter, misunderstanding the value surveyors provide, exuberantly portrays such services as being in the same vein as Uber or Lyft, which connects car riders with drivers, undermining the influence of licensed taxi services. However, driving a car is different than developing an informed professional opinion on property boundaries. Almost every American seventeen-year-old has the basic skills needed to drive a car. Surveying is closer to law, medicine, or even teaching middle school: it requires a set of skills that can only be formed by specialized training and lengthy experience, and the consequences for failing to apply those skills can be significant. The commendable inclination to support free enterprise must take into consideration the need to protect life, public safety, and property rights. A survey, which, at its root, is a judgment regarding property boundaries, ought to be performed by those who have the expertise to do so, and a “geo-spatial consultant” cannot dodge that responsibility by simply choosing not to call their product a survey.
Sometimes, it is true that a particular property has such clear property boundaries or is of sufficiently low value that a land survey is not justified. However, it is important for the landowner and other stakeholders (banks, attorneys, real estate professionals) to be conscious of what they are giving up – the opportunity to have an informed, reliable, and reasoned professional opinion as to the location of property boundaries and other factors that many impact one’s right to use their property, like encroachments and access issues. In all other cases – when it really matters – cutting corners exposes stakeholders more expense and frustration in the future.
(Lucas, 2018)(Carter, 2018)
Carter, S. L. (2018). Land Surveyors Are Paying the Price of Progress. Bloomberg. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-07-19/land-surveys-follow-path-drawn-by-uber-airbnb-and-tech-startups
Lucas, J. N. (2018). The Unauthorized Practice of Surveying. POB, 19–21.