11th May, 2008

Section Line Easements

M. Spangler 10.20.04

I got a call today with a request about if I thought a section line easement of 50′ existed on a particular piece of property. The entry date of the original federal homestead was in 1920. The twist is that in 1953 the property escheated to the Territory by the Courts. I think that a 50′ SLE came into existence at that time. If anyone thinks otherwise please let me know. The problem for surveyors is that unless a title report with all the chain of title documents is reviewed this would be an easy thing to overlook. Comments anyone?

J. Bennett 10.21.04

Mike, glad to see you on line in the ROW Mystery forum!. You have made a good point that I am hearing more and more about. Whether you are researching the existence of a section line easement or a public land order right of way, the focus is on dates. 1) the date by which the lands were unreserved and unappropriated federal lands (for federal sle’s and plo’s), 2) the date of the enabling legislation for sle’s or effective date of the PLO, and, 3) date of township plat approval for federal sle’s. Fixing the date of township approval and effective date of PLO or enabling legislation for sle’s is relatively straightforward. The trick is determining whether there are any prior existing rights that would prevent the sle or plo from being established.

In our 1994 edition of the ASPLS Standards of Practice Manual, the sle research techniques outline (p 23-27) limits the discussion of how to determine the “reserved” land status to “Using either BLM’s land status database or Historical Index determine the date of reserved status or the date of entry leading to patent.” This was kind of a simplistic statement as the land status database and historical index often would only list the date that the application had been received for some of the more common reservations such as a homestead or Trade & Manufacturing entry. The problem was that the application date may not be the critical date. There are arguments that the critical date is the date of occupation, the application date or the date the application was approved. In much of my experience, we rarely had much concern about these varying dates because the date upon which the ROW could have attached and the date of reservation were typically many years apart. However, now we have been seeing more and more cases where the dates are so close together that we must expand our research. Generally, this might include a request to the national archives for the BLM case file that includes all of the correspondence and transactions that led to patent.

A good recent example case we had was where we needed to determine whether a Trade and Manufacturing Site patent was subject to the 300′ wide PLO ROW for the Richardson Highway. The T&M application date was 9/22/49. PLO 601 came into effect on 8/10/49. So at a glance it appears that the T&M patent was subject to the ROW. Because the dates were so close we obtained the BLM case file and found that the entryman had occupied and improved the parcel many years before their application date. The CFR’s governing T&M sites since 1950 stated that an entryman had 90 days to file an application after initial occupation or they would receive no credit for occupancy prior to the application. At that point it appeared that the patent was still subject to the 300′ wide PLO ROW. We went one step further and acquired a copy of the 1949 edition of 43 CFR 81 and found that in that and prior editions, rights vested at the date of occupancy and there was no 90 day limitation upon which an application had to be filed. So the bottom line is that when PLO 601 came into effect on 9/10/49, the lands embraced by this T&M site had already been appropriated by occupancy that led to the eventual patent. There can be no 300′ wide ROW across this parcel and at best the state can claim a “ditch to ditch” width easement either by RS2477 or by a claim of a public prescriptive easement.

So to sum it all up, Mike has hit the nail on the head…evaluations of sle’s or plo’s can involve a lot more than meets the eye. Hopefully, experience and good judgement will prevail in determining whether you have gone far enough in reaching the correct conclusion. JohnB

M. Schoder 9.21.04


This text is based primarily on the writing of Willard “Mike” Olson, PLS about his own Alaska BLM Cadastral Survey historical accounts. With permission from Mr. Olson (Oly) I have done some expounding on his text, and some minor editing. You can find Oly’s website at: http://home.gci.net/~wmocet

This is the first Part of a series of postings to describe the some of the activities and technologies that the BLM Cadastral Survey has used during the period of time from Statehood (1959) until modern day. As Forum Cadastral Survey Topic Moderator I would be glad to try to answer questions that might arise about these historical activities as I have a fair amount of insight to this topic matter and also have direct access to many others who were involved in these surveys.

– Michael Schoder, PLS

From the early days of Alaska Statehood to today, BLM-Cadastral Survey has been very active in delineating the boundaries of the Public Domain in Alaska. At the same time, there has been a continual searching and developing of the latest and most sophisticated survey technology in the world to assist this effort.

Surveying a state that was twice the size of Texas, consisting of 365 million acres of rugged terrain that was mostly road-less and uninhabited with a climate known for its severity and unpredictability, is perhaps the most challenging and difficult survey assignment undertaken in this past century, and it continues today some 45 years after Statehood. The BLM Cadastral Survey set out to develop the survey capabilities adequate to meet this challenge. BLM Cadastral Survey Alaska has been a forerunner in many applications of developing technologies to assist in the survey of Public Lands in Alaska.

One of the first steps undertaken by BLM was to protract a rectangular survey grid across the state. Establishing this grid overlay involved mathematically calculating the geographic position of every township and section corner within the state. A geographic position defines the latitude and longitude of any given point on the earth’s surface. Since there was only one datum at the time, NAD27, all geodetic positions for the protraction diagrams were referenced to this. Even in today’s age, surveys are referenced to NAD27 to maintain consistency and relationship to the PLSS protraction grid. NGS, then USC&GS assisted BLM in precisely locating all of the Alaska Initial Points to the NGS control network to form the accurate inter-relationships of the Initial Points. See C. Albert Whites “Initial Points” book for more details about the IP establishment.

The protracted grid of PLSS corner geographic positions would allow the surveyor to establish the position for all township and internal section corners independent of other township corners, without “building” one township upon another one as had previously been the only method used. Instead, the surveyor could orient original surveys to the sparse, yet available, state-wide Federal control network and layout the township corner locations by geographic positions using geodetic survey techniques. The geographic positions were published on “protraction diagrams” and have served as the basis for all Cadastral Surveys in Alaska since statehood. About this same time (early 1960s) highly accurate electronic instruments capable of measuring long distances were introduced and dramatically changed the method of surveying. Until this time distances had to be measured by some type chain or tape. Not only was this time consuming and very difficult in all areas, it was at times extremely difficult when it was necessary to cross rivers, canyons, etc. In those instances, it was necessary to calculate the distance by triangulation. With the application of the Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) instruments it was possible to quickly and accurately measure distances between mountain tops, across rivers and canyons, and over the tops of trees and other thick vegetation that would have taken hours and days to have measured in the old conventional way. These early day era EDM’s had a range of 30 to 40 miles depending on the type terrain and ground cover between the two instruments.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the early days of statehood, BLM purchased two types of E.D.M. equipment. These were the Tellurometer and Hydrodist. The Tellurometer consisted to two units, one “master” unit and one “slave” designations. The master and remote units were set up on opposite ends of the survey line to be measured. The units were heavy and bulky and used car batteries for a power source. By today’s standards they were very crude and cumbersome but in the early 1960’s they represented state of the art technology. Distances of up to 50 miles could be measured, and because they were microwave based, line-of-sight was not needed.

Establishing primary control though out a project was accomplished by measuring the angles with a theodolite (modern transit) and the distance with the E.D.M. along traverse lines between existing geodetic control stations. Usually always a densification of the existing NGS control network in a project area was required.

The first real use of a “non-conventional” township survey included use of some for the time innovative procedures and the Tellurometer. For these surveys a survey crew which was normally transported to the site by helicopters would position themselves at a temporary point as near to a protracted corner location as possible, maintaining line-of-sight with the crew or crews located on one or more of these geodetic control stations. The position of the “roving crew” would then be established by measuring angles and distances (with the Tellurometer) from the known point. After the geographic position for the temporary point was calculated, a crew would then determine and monument the actual point for the corner (taken from the protraction diagrams) by a more conventional method of survey, (usually transit and tape).

The MRB-2 Hydrodist system was used in Alaska from 1963 through 1966. It consisted of two master units that would occupy existing geodetic control stations. A remote unit was carried in a helicopter which would hover over a point flagged on the ground as near to the predetermined location of the corner as possible. The distances to each of the master units were measured while the helicopter hovered over the flagged point on the ground. At the same time the measurements were being taken, surveyors at the master control stations would be measuring angles to the helicopter. The angle and distance measurements would require the helicopter to hover in the same position for approximately six to eight minutes. This method of survey was called the Airborne Control Survey System or more commonly simply “ABC” surveys.

After the position for the hovered and flagged point was calculated, a monument crew would return to the point and traverse from this point to the actual location of the corner and set the monument in the ground. Although this was basically the same method as using the Tellurometer previously described, it has the distinct advantage of allowing the “roving” surveyor to get nearer, and sometimes directly over, the corner point. This was possible because if the point chosen was not inter-visible with the control station, which was necessary with the first method, the surveyor could simply instruct the pilot to hover higher above the ground until line-of-sight contact was made. Hover heights of 50 to 100 feet above the ground were not uncommon.

A hover-sight mounted on the helicopter allowed the pilot to know when he was over the desired point while measurements were being taken. This was difficult at times and quite dangerous because of changing wind patterns, the strain this put the helicopter under, and because of the very rugged terrain where many of the corners were located.

The ABC method of survey required approximately seven surveyors, a geodist, camp cook, a helicopter pilot and mechanic. The Hydrodist system cost about $50,000 and the production rate averaged about three corners set per work day (six days per week). During the 1966 field season, because the area being surveyed was heavily timbered, four smoke jumpers were assigned to the crew. These smoke jumpers would parachute into an area and clear out the location where the corner was to be set. This would allow the helicopter to land so the survey crew could set the corner.

In July 1962 the first Alaska ABC Survey was performed by Fredrick W. Ward & Wallace E. Smith under Group No. 130. The platting and field notes also required diversions from the normal on the ground type of surveys, which is a different topic for discussion in itself. The plats and survey was approved on 6/20/1966. Once proven to work, and be productive, BLM really entered the age of “miles and monuments” where big production of original survey of the “Skelotonized” townships could commence. These type of surveys required original survey of Townships where the exterior boundaries were surveyed only, with a 2-mile monumentation interval as called for the the Alaska Statehood Selcetion MOU with the State, and later by Alaska Land Claims Settlement Act language.

BLM Cadastral Survey replaced the MRB-2 Hydrodist in 1966 with the cubic Dm-40 Auto-tape. This system as an automatic, electronic distance measuring system composed of an interrogator unit and three control station responder units. The operator in the hovering helicopter was able to measure distances to two units at the same time. With three units scattered on different control stations, it allowed for better checks and more flexibility, and made it possible to enlarge the work area so that more work could be accomplished before having to move crews to new control stations.

In 1972, BLM Cadastral Survey purchased the first four range system allowing the capability of Trilateration solutions in addition to the angular-distance solutions, or a combination of both. Trilateration is a method of computing positions using only the length of lines of the triangles, while triangulation incorporates both angles and lengths to compute the unknown position. This was the first airborne system to incorporate a magnetic tape unit to recover data. The tapes were input into a computer and teletype style printout was produced. The cost of the full-blown system was approximately $200,000.

This system required an operator in the helicopter and eight personnel on the four control stations. Depending on the terrain, an average of 20 corner positions could be established during the work day. On days when the weather was down, the eight people were used for corner setting. On an average, 1.5 million acres, or approximately 65 townships, were being field surveyed per Field Camp per year. This was a field production increase of over 500% compared to the first ABC methods.

For all practical purposes, this generation of survey technology gave way to the Inertial Survey System in 1975, although the ABC system was used to some extent until 1979.

Part 2 of this series will describe the AutoSurveyor age.

11th May, 2008

Platted Rights of Way

backsite1 6.3.05


I’ve recently bought a lot. The front of my lot is on a curve in the street, and it was created by replat. The original plat naturally had the right of way layed out parallel and tangent throughout. The surveyor who did the replat decided to connect my front lot corners and the adjacent lots’ front corners, which he found with a couple tenths or so of the record position, with a curve of radius different than the record radius from the original plat (in order to run the curve through all the corners). So this means that the tangents going in and out of this curve are… well not tangent. No big deal right? What about the other side of the street? (He didn’t show any corners over there so I can only assume that he’s not concerned with them) Shall we come up with another radius for that curve? If we do, then the rights of way are not parallel or the record dedicated width.

I’ve had the common law doctrine that public rights of way always get their exact platted width buried deep in my psyche since college. But I’ve had conversations with peers lately who believe that platted rights of way are strictly controlled by connecting found original monuments.

Do you, when establishing platted right of way, connect the dots or best fit. I’m a best fitter, I believe it’s the only way to protect the rights of the public. Let the monumentation control the side and rear lot lines.

Perhaps I’m alone in this attitude or straight up wrong, I would like to hear some other opinions.


J. Bennett 6.26.05

Backsight1: I’m a PLS who has been working directly with ROW issues for almost 20 years and I’m not sure that I have found any consistent answers to your scenario. The only thing I know for sure is that as each year passes, I realize how little I do know. I had an email exchange with another surveyor a while back that considered some of the same issues you are bringing up. I will post it below but will remove the other three surveyors names just in case they aren’t interested in having their names posted.


I’m trying to mark ROW and adjacent easements for phone lines in a subdivision by [Unnamed PLS #1]. I’ve tied boundary monuments on one side and about 15 interior monuments on ROW lines. There is a rotation and perhaps translation from the interior row monuments and lot corners on the ROW lines compared to the record plat (which closes) and the exterior mons I’ve tied. Based on interior mons alone, you could best fit a 60′ wide corridor and most of the mons would fall within 2′ of that line, although some have much more error in other directions.

Many of the lots are REPORTED as sold by unrecorded contract for sale, only 4 have recorded deeds or deeds of trust. My current thinking is that the dedication was made by the plat and the original monuments define the ROW and easement. Roads are constructed, electric lines installed underground. Do you see any fault in this logic or think we would incur liability by marking the lines according to the original monuments?

All monument positions seem to be plus/minus a foot. The rotation shows five feet long in the few places where I have the monument at the other end of the lot line. I presume on the other end of the subdivision it would be short. Seems like to “fix” the plat would require a vacation and 100%
participation in replat. Owner of record for most parcels is [Unnamed PLS #1]. I understand that the exterior boundary which is an aliquot part description would be subject to change if improperly done but I see no basis to change the interior monuments.

Signed, [Unnamed PLS #2]

Unnamed PLS #2,

I tend to agree with your conclusion. I have had this discussion with other surveyors and not all of us agree. I hang my hat on the principles noted in Brown/Robillard/Wilson’s Third Ed. of Boundary Control and Legal Principles. Section 6.21 says “artificial monuments that represent the actual lines run by the original surveyor at the time of making the plat are presumed to control street lines irrespective of whether the courses, distances, and street improvement agree with the plat or not.” So if you think you have recovered original interior monuments, they would govern even if they do not reflect the platted street width. Once exception is when you cannot recover all of the original monuments along the street ROW. In these situations the platted street widths are held and any excess or deficiency proration is limited to the lots. Now I have to say that one surveyor that I consider to be really smart didn’t completely agree with this. [Unnamed PLS #3] argued that were more like witness corners or closing corners upon the platted ROW and would withhold the platted street width and show the relationship between the recovered monument and the calculated ROW line. But I still think that for the same reason that the other interior lot corners are held as sacred, the original corners defining the interior streets should also. The owner puts great reliance on the accuracy of the monuments set by the surveyor and depends on the fact that they won’t be changing position with each new survey. In some cases there are good reasons for that to happen, but I don’t think so in this case. So, if I understand your question correctly, I believe I agree with you.


Thanks to [Unnamed PLS #4] and John Bennett for taking time and giving me some feedback on this issue.

In discussing [Unnamed PLS#1]’s plat at our Jan 30 ASPLS chapter meeting, the issue being whether the ROW is jagged as defined by his monuments or is a full 60′ width, I find myself holding a minority opinion in holding the jagged line with a varying width ROW. I admit to not re-reading my legal books, but rather base my opinion on my readings nearly 20 years ago. Last night I did browse my books, and offer the following observations and cites to support my opinion, and invite you all to rebut them if you wish:

When a field survey is actually made, as a part of a plat, that the lines run on the ground hold over the numbers given on the plat. When retracing such a survey, that the original monuments called for on the plat, set by the original surveyor, undisturbed, control over those plat dimensions, that the monuments have no error in position. Exceptions to this are where exterior boundaries are controlled by aliquot part descriptions. Monuments set inside such a boundary leave a hiatus of land, those outside overlap property owned by the neighbor.

I think most of your arguments citing giving the ROW full width arise out of theory based on proportional measurement, where original monuments are missing, and overlook the more basic precept that proportional measurement is lowest on the priorities of establishing positions in the field. Exceptions to this concept are ROWs established without a survey made at the same time such as a PLO establishing a 100 ROW along a road or dedications based on a strip conveyance where centerline monuments are set.

Citing Brown et. al, “Boundary Control and Legal Principles”, 3rd edition, page 132, section 6.19, “establishment of streets”: Streets are established by the following methods listed in their usual order of importance: (a) by natural monuments; (b) by artificial monuments and lines actually run at the time of making the plat; (c) by improvements; (d) by the line of nearby streets where called for: (e) by the data given on the plat; and (f) as a last resort, by proportional measure. ”

Same cite, section 6.21: “Principle. After natural monuments, artificial monuments that represent the actual lines run by the original surveyor at the time of making the plat are presumed to control street lines irrespective of whether the courses, distances, and street improvement agree with the plat or not. Identified original monuments set by the original surveyor and found undisturbed will control the street line as shown in Fig. 6.4. Street A was found to measure 50 feet between monuments instead of 40 feet as indicated on the original map. The adjoining lots cannot each receive 5 dextra by narrowing the street; the rtificial monuments found definitely establish the street line. Similarly, if the record measurement is greater than the actual width indicated by monuments, the streets cannot be widened at the expense of the adjoining lots. In this case the subdivider’s intentions are clearly shown by the markers set at the time of the subdivision. The fact that the mapmaker erroneously noted 40 feet instead of 50 feet does not alter the facts on the ground.”

Same cite, section 6.24 “establishment of streets by plat. Principle. In the absence of evidence covered by the foregoing principles, the exact width of the street as given on the plat and the distances and angles are presumed to govern street location. . . . In absence of monuments streets are given the width called for on the plat, regardless of excess or deficiency that may exist within a subdivision. . .The rights of the public to a street are this protected by the courts so that deficiency or excess cannot exist within a street except where the original monuments set by the original surveyor indicate otherwise. . . Not all surveyors are in agreement with the theory that excess or deficiency is not to be prorated in the width of the street.”

In Clark on Surveying and Boundaries, 6th edition, section 21.10, page 680 , “where a plat delineates an actual survey, the survey, rather than the plat, fixes the location of the boundaries of the parcel. The survey is substance, the pat is a picture. . .Where there is a dispute as to the boundary line between a street and the abutting lots, the original survey will control the recorded plat.”

Same cite, section 29.11, page 1000, “Like any survey that was conducted for the preparation of a conveyance description, the land taken for a highway is that on which it is actually built and not that identified on the plat. This is in keeping with the legal concept that the lines actually run on the ground identify the original survey.”

[Unnamed PLS #2]


So you can see that there are a wide variety of opinions as to how you should deal with these situations. In the absence of black and white scenarios, I tend to reflect upon the following two quotes regarding evaluation of evidence.:

Mitchell Williams and Harlan Onsrud from an American Bar Association book entitled Land Surveys, a Guide for Lawyers.

“If the surveyor’s evaluation of the evidence in the example is eventually upheld in a court of law, it is because the surveyor has arrived at a comprehensive and well-reasoned answer rather than because he has arrived at the theoretically correct answer. Again, there are no ‘true’ answers waiting to be discovered;only well-reasoned ones.”

In the 1974, 10th Edition of Land Survey Descriptions by Willam C. Wattles and revised by Gurdon H. Wattles, the interpretation of deeds was discussed:

“You sometimes have multiple possible combinations of physical and record solutions to the determination of a line or point to be shown on a map and used in a subsequent revision of a description. The decision as to which one or combination to use is not based on one rule only; the decision should be the result of careful analysis of both the singular facts and the different combinations of them together. When one grouping of a set of facts conforms more closely that any other combination to the conditions set forth by the description on record and the original survey, you then have the most reasonable solution that is probably available. This is known as the theory of majority probability, and would likely carry the most weight in court.”

Also, in case you have a real difficult time falling to sleep at night, I have attached a link to a paper I presented at the 1996 Alaska Surveying & Mapping Conference regarding the surveys of highway ROW. It doesn’t dwell so much on subdivision dedicated ROW and pretty much just reflects some of my experiences, but here it is: http://alaskapls.org/temp/row_surveys.pdf

And that’s my two cents ……..


Jun 02, 2005

I’ve only recently starting working in Alaska and am somewhat suprised by the absence of the legal description on the face of plats here. The other states that I am licensed in require it and I believe that it is essential for subsequent surveys of lots within a plat (and especially those lots bordering the plat boundaries) to have the overall description readily available. I hope someone can give me a line of reasoning behind the omission of this information and any reasons that it would not be a good idea to include it.


Jun 02, 2005

Backsight1 -

That is a correct observation. Although all of my professional land survey work has been done in this state, here is my take on it:

In this state typically the parent parcel legal descriptions for subdivisions are normally in the recorded plat title block. Since we are a PLSS state, and a young state where most subdivisions are first or second in chain of title from the original federal patent, more often than not the parent parcel starts with the description founded in the PLSS, other federal land description system (U.S. Survey, Townsite, 14-C parcel, etc.), or prior subdivision Lot/Block/Tract/Subdivision description. For example, if the NW1/4 of Section 13, T. 12 N., R. 3 W., Some Meridian…is the parent parcel, it is easily described in a aliquot description. If the subdivision parent parcel is a prior platted parcel, like Tract B-1, Sunnyside Acres Subdivision, Plat 98-98, Some Recording District… that is a full and adequate parent parcel description that can be easily described in the title block. The State Recorder, and the governing platting authority reviews normally check for an adequate description of the parent parcel. Subdivision by metes and bounds is not legal under the platting authority rules. Redescription of property that is most easily described in reference to the PLSS or by Tract/Lot/Block/Subdivision is redundant and not necessary or recommended.

For those who have worked in Metes-and-Bounds states, or those with many years of subdivision by deeds being legal, this seems odd. However, it works well as generally there has always been a platting requirement in most parts of the state since statehood, and now everywhere for the last few years. It is required to subdivide land in accordance with platting authority rules as there is a platting authority covering the entire state. There are a few exceptions, (like large parcels that can be subdivided into 5acre or larger aliquot parts in reference to the PLSS).

Good question and observation. If you have more questions or commentary, lets hear it. Thanks for chiming in on the ASPLS forum board, it has been pretty dead lately around here.
Michael Schoder, PLS


Jun 03, 2005

Thanks for the reply Michael, that makes sense that if there were never any land divisions by deed that there would be little need for a traditional legal description. Alaska is indeed unique (and fortunate) in this way.

Many (dare I say most) counties and municipalities outside Alaska do already, or are being forced to, allow land divisions by means other than platting. This is mostly due to high land value/increased development, and compounded by the dwindling number of surveyors, and the cost/time associated with platting. I imagine eventually, as we develop, Alaska too will be faced with a similar situation.

You’re also right that this is a slow forum, maybe I’ll post something incendiary to see if anyone’s awake.

George Strother

Dec 01, 2005

A big reason for not including a long legal description on a plat, is that the legal description should be the same as the external boundary shown on the plat. If there is a drafting error (never happens with a computer???) then a plat can have two legals for the same piece of property - the bearing and distances on the drawing and again mabe different numbers in a long written legal. The drawing dimensions are more easily followed by the public and other surveyors and are perfectly legal on a recorded plat, so why gum up the works to have a typed paragraph, with the same information, on the plat.
George Strother, PE, PLS
NSPS Governor - Alaska

Tom Knox, P.L.S.

Jan 18, 2006

I am the Anchorage Municipal Surveyor and am tasked with reviewing all plats that are submitted to the Municipal Platting Authority for approval and acceptance for filing at the State Recorders Office. I have been performing this function for many years and have viewed many licensed professional surveyors’ work product. I believe I understand the reasoning behind our State Law that requires a plat to subdivide property for transfer by sale or development. The advice “keep it simple stupid” is very sound advice. One of the best ways for a property owner to show his/her/their intent when dividing property is to reduce it to an accurate drawing for others to interpret in the future. Words alone or included on the plat can conjure up many different interpretations of someone’s intent. george is right on the money when he states that mistakes happen and when they do they have to addressed. The plat legal description, reduced to its simplest form and fortified by a drawing representing the description will aid in elimination of costly and time consuming arguments between attorneys at a later date over a bounday dispute.