Land Surveying: The “Pincushion” Effect

land surveying

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Boundary monuments are an important part of land surveying. “Monuments” are what we call the objects used to mark the corners during a land survey to know where the property boundary lines are and the property begins and ends.

Monuments can be destroyed over time, usually by nature and not by man. Over time, the monuments that have been used have changed. Over the years, surveyors have used stones, all types of wooden posts (cedar, pine, oak), a gun barrel, a buggy axle, a live tree, or a running creek.

During the U.S. Public Land Survey, surveyors use marked wooden posts at the section corners (1 mile spacing) or at half-mile spacing within the 6 mile by 6 mile boundary of a township. Today most of the corner monuments set are iron or metal pipes or rods. Also, in most states, the surveyor is required to provide some kind of indication of who set the pin by placing a mark with their license or authorization number.

According to property law and the law of boundaries, there should only be one original land surveyor. Meaning, once a surveyor places land surveying monuments on a property, that should be respected at all times. The following surveyors should always follow the monuments put in place by the first surveyor. This is called “following in the steps of the original surveyor.” Further subdivision of a larger parcel of land can also be considered an original survey, but technically it is just a re-subdivision of a larger tract that was previously surveyed.

What the land surveying world is having a problem with is that a lot of following surveyors want to put their own land surveying monuments at a location where there are already corner monuments found. This is what we call the “pincushion effect”. Generally, people would see this as nothing but having two land surveyors who differ in opinion – not really a problem right?

Well, not really. Setting additional corner monuments will certainly bring into question the boundary location and cloud the picture. Of course, surveyors will never fully agree on the precise location of a corner but, in most cases, a found monument should be left alone and accepted.

Certainly if the found monument is “original” then it would control and there is no need for any further points to be placed. Surveying and the placement of property corners involves property law, measurement science, evidence interpretation, relevant experience, and then some professional judgement. This means that an exact answer is probably not usually known. BUT, there can be a best answer.

The addition of more “corner monuments” will also diminish the public’s view of the surveying profession. How would the public trust the land surveying industry when we can’t even have two land surveyors agree on results?

Because of pincushion dilemma, it is now a common perception that no two land surveyors can agree on the location of a given property corner. This is giving such a bad image to land surveyors, and this can give us even more problems in the future.

The land surveying industry is still in the process learning more about how to resolve this professional problem – through continuing education and through additional practice. A number of legal cases have been tried which lend to the resolution. One Alabama surveyor, Jeffery N. Lucas, also an attorney at law, is on the front line of getting to the bottom of this problem in our state. He has written a book about the different effects of these pin cushion corners that should be read and debated by all land surveyors practicing boundary surveying.

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