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Land Surveying Ethics is a discussion forum for issues involving ethics in the practice of Land Surveying.  Every Land Surveyor has faced or will face an ethical problem or concern.  This is where we air it out and compare notes.  What is or is not ethical is sometimes a matter of law, sometimes a matter of opinion, but always a matter of morality.

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It is, indeed, my opinion that proportioning a PLSS section of land to restore the original location of the corner post should be the last resort. Unfortunately, and likely, in my opinion, that it be cost-prohibitive (for the surveyor's client) to conduct an exhaustive search, both on the ground and of public records, not to mention verbal testimonies of abutting land owners, surveyors tend to comfortably abuse the methods prescribed by, and in many cases, adopted by particular states and commonwealths, the federal methods of proportionate reconstruction. 

Yes, I said reconstruction, because that's exactly what it is, and it is also approaching illegal, in my opinion, because once a section corner is established by the first adjusted wooden or stone "stake" placed by the original US Public Land Survey, it can not be re-established, re-positioned, or "re" anything. The US PLSS is, of course, a legal system and not a measurement system nor a mathematical system. So, now, where was that original corner "post"? 

An exhaustive research is always in order within the framework of the law, however, what if the best available evidence is an old fence corner? So be it the perpetuation of the original corner, right? This is a second-to-last resort, yet I have seen too many cases where the surveyor assumes the fence corner to be the best available evidence without an exhaustive research. Anybody can walk up to a fence corner and say "yup, that's the property corner", so why would a surveyor do the same? Profitability. It usually goes undetected, because it is more in line with physical evidence, but I have noticed this potentially illegal practice a multitude of times. 

How much will this survey cost?, asks the client. The hypothetical surveyor is thinking "I have no idea whatsoever until I finish the survey", and makes the quantum leap into a fixed fee contract, then realizes he can not afford to put food on the table unless he _____ ( fill in the blank). The result, in many cases, is litigation. 

A professional land surveyor must know when to stop and either take a loss, lick his wounds, and move on, or continue with the "smoke and mirrors" and produce a survey that will make him money. Perhaps this is more of a discussion of ethics than it is of anything else. 

How many of you fellow surveyors enjoy a day or two in a court of law? Of course, none. How many of you have lost sleep over losing a few thousand dollars on a survey? Probably all of you. How many of you have recovered from a situation like this with your integrity intact and your bank account still in the black? Hopefully all of you. How many of you have sacrificed your integrity, endangered your license, the welfare of the general public, and complicated future land transactions in the name of profit, alone? Hopefully, none of you. 

Scott D. Warner, RLS

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  • Well said Scott, I recently closed my business of 25 years in Virginia. I moved West, went from a Colonial metes and bounds state to a PLSS state. I was getting quite disgusted with the shoddy surveying in my home state and the cut throat practices. I always did things right and yes many times lost money because I had to spend a load of time at the Courthouse and State Library searching for deeds and plats. I always walked away knowing that I had turned every stone. I thought coming West things would be different, however I found them the same if not worse. My boss, yes I am working for someone else again, was surprised when I went to the Courthouse and searched records for 2 hours, and said, "we usually just call the Title Company and let them provide records". I responded well that's not how it should be done and explained the importance of good research and the types of evidence. The good thing is I convinced her, because an Easement plat was about to go out the door, and due to my research I found a few problems. Pointed it out to her made the corrections. All she could ask was, "Why didn't my previous Surveyor find this?" All I could say was because he did not do the correct research. In talking with other Surveyors and asking questions it seems a lack of research is the norm out here. They let the landowner provide deeds and plats, but do little leg work on their own. It is a sad state of affairs.

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