Surveyors fix lines with satellite, laser

Change: Tougher state regulations and high-tech equipment have altered the ancient science of surveying.

January 02, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

George Washington was just a teen-ager with little more experience than surveying his brother's turnip patch when he got a job helping map thousands of acres in western Virginia for the powerful Lord Fairfax.

Surveying today is not the way George knew it.

Computers, satellites and robotics are replacing the transit and 66-foot chain that surveyors used for hundreds of years. The state's 850 licensed surveyors also face increased educational requirements and new regulations to protect consumers.

"It's been a very dynamic profession," said Thomas Orisich, a surveyor with Whitney, Bailey, Cox and Magnani and a surveyor for 20 years.

"With my first employer, I worked with a transit and tape. Today we can get plats and deeds from the Internet . We no longer use ink pens," he said.

Surveying retains an aura of mystery and romance. Surveyors still talk in a strange language of perches and poles. While there no longer are vast tracts of wilderness to survey and map, some surveyors still do traipse through the woods looking for ancient markers their predecessors have laid.

"There is a certain breed of surveyors who very much like to be woodsmen," said David S. Thaler, president of D. S. Thaler & Associates in Baltimore County, a surveying and engineering firm.

But there are surveyors who spend most of their days in an office, reviewing the work of crews who have taken the measurements, researching deeds, and poring over engineering drawings. There are road surveyors, property-line surveyors, surveyors who work for development companies and those that specialize in house settlements. There are also surveyors who work for the oil and gas companies.

"It's a blend of the old and the new," said Joel Leininger, a principal of S. J. Martenet & Co., one of the oldest surveying firms in Baltimore.

But misunderstandings about the role of surveyors have clouded the home real estate market. Until a few years ago, many homebuyers who paid $75 to $100 to have a property surveyed for a mortgage believed the drawing handed to them at settlement was an accurate representation of the boundary lines.

Instead, those drawings were made merely to validate to the lender that a home actually existed on the land and not to document property lines.

Rules adopted by Department of Licensing and Regulations in 1995 clarify to homebuyers the distinction between home location drawings and true boundary surveys.

Homebuyers now must receive a written notice telling them they have a choice in the kind of survey service they receive.

The boundary survey, which can cost several thousand dollars, requires extensive studying of records as well as an attempt to find old markers. Locating obscure rocks or posts can take days.

Leininger said most surveyors didn't see a need for the new regulations. But Charles Maloy, chairman of the state's licensing board for land surveyors, said that since the new standards were passed, the board has received many fewer complaints from homebuyers.

"There is no question in my mind the consumer is getting a better product," Maloy said.

Thaler said he supports the new law. "I think it has vastly reduced the misunderstandings associated with location drawings."

The survey board, which oversees licensing of surveyors, receives about 20 complaints a year about surveyors. Leininger, who sits on the board, said most often the complaints arise over misunderstandings about the scope of the survey.

"Surveyors don't communicate as well as they might," he said.

There is more to the job than calculating angles and distances. Surveyors are part engineers, part historians and part detectives.

While their work might take them into mosquito-infested woods, it is as likely to take them into the bowels of a courthouse where they must pore over old deeds on microfilm trying to understand the work of previous surveyors.

The surveys being done today are more accurate than ever before. One reason for the improvement is new technology.

In the past two decades computerized instruments called "total stations" have largely replaced the old steel measuring tape used to calculate distances. The new instruments, using microwave or laser beams to record distances, are accurate to within one-hundredth of a foot compared to the old system that was accurate to within a tenth of a foot.

Surveyors also are now using satellite technology that can pinpoint their positions in the world. With instruments that cost up to $75,000 each, one surveyor can do the work once done by a crew.

A number of jurisdictions now require surveyors to submit property measurements using the Global Positioning System.

Thaler, who collects old survey instruments, said he was skeptical of the new technology at first. "But, I was wrong. It was the smartest thing we ever did," he said. "It has dramatically improved the accuracy and productivity of our surveyors."

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