Griffin's Rules

In 1960, Robert J. Griffin wrote an article entitled "Retracement and Apportionment as Surveying Methods for Re-establishing Property Corners" (Marquette Law Review, 43: 484-510). In it, he discussed in great detail rules of law and practice for the two surveying methods, and when each is appropriate. This article should be in every retracement person's library of tools.

One of the guiding lights in surveying is the Florida decision of Rivers v. Lozeau (539 So.2d 1147 [1989]), wherein the court discussed the two roles, or functions, of a land surveyor: In laying out or establishing boundary lines within an original division of a tract of land (original subdivision, with subsequent transfer of title), the surveyor is an "original surveyor," and the survey has special authority in that the monuments set by that surveyor control over

  1. discrepancies within the total parcel description and, more importantly, the court stated,
  2. control over all subsequent surveys attempting to locate the same line.

Second, a surveyor can be retained to locate on the ground a boundary line that has previously been established. Doing this, the surveyor "traces the footsteps" of the "original surveyor" in the location of existing boundaries. The court emphasized that this is a "retracement" survey, and the second and each succeeding surveyor is a "following" or "tracing" surveyor with the sole duty, function, and power of locating on the ground the boundaries, corners, and boundary line or lines established by the original survey. This surveyor cannot establish a new corner or a new line terminal point, nor may he correct errors of the original surveyor. The court emphasized further that, "the following surveyor, rather than being the creator of the boundary line, is only its discoverer and is only that when he correctly locates it."

This case is noteworthy in that the survey in question had to do with the retracement of existing lines and the creation of new lines. The surveyor treated them both the same, not realizing that they are indeed different and each governed by different rules. Not realizing the proper rule(s) to apply led him to make a serious mistake.

Griffin begins his discussion by stating that, "retracement is a surveying method for resurrecting evidence of the location of a once established property corner. Its aim is to follow, as closely as possible, in the footsteps of the original surveyor and re-establish property corners in the exact position in which he originally placed them." Exact, means just that, exact.

He continues, stating that, "a boundary line once established should remain fixed in its original position through any series of mesne conveyances. A grantee who purchases the entire extent of particular lands owned by the grantor determines the boundaries of his purchase as of the time that the particular parcel was carved out of some larger tract. He takes to the bounds of the estate of his grantor, who in turn took to the limits of his grantor's estate, etc., to the time of creation of the boundary. A grantee purchasing only a part of the lands of his grantor will determine the common boundaries as of the time of the conveyance, while he will determine boundaries on the perimeter of the grantor's original tract with reference to the time that they were created. Each line of the same parcel must be considered separately, and a determination of the proper surveying method to be used must be made with respect to each line of the parcel." This is exactly the approach that should have been used in surveying the tract that was the subject of Rivers v. Lozeau, and the conclusion ultimately drawn by the court.

Like other rules, some are easy to state but difficult to put into practice. Griffin addresses that as well, and his commentary is supported by past court decisions and a multitude of decisions since, demonstrating that the rules are solid and have been referred to by the court system on a regular basis for a long time. He lists three items for guidance in retracement:

  1. location of a boundary line is determined as of the time of its creation;
  2. retracement should proceed from a known location to hypothecate the unknown; and
  3. retracement should apply rules of construction to contradictory evidences of intention.

For retracement, these are probably the only basic rules a surveyor needs to know, provided, of course, that one understands them. Each of them will be discussed in forthcoming articles. Most other rules are derived from Griffin's basic three principles.

When there are no remaining traces of a monument (or its accessories), its position may still have been preserved. This is known as an obliterated corner. The point has been perpetuated by collateral evidence. Its location may be recovered by recourse to the acts and testimony of interested landowners, competent surveyors, or witnesses who observed where the corner was originally established. A location that depends solely upon such collateral evidence can be accepted as the true location so long as it bears a proper relation to known corners and is in substantial agreement with the field notes of the survey.

A lost corner is a point of survey whose exact location cannot be determined to a reasonable certainty either from traces of the original monument or its accessories or from acceptable evidence or testimony that bears upon the original location. Restoration of a corner as lost should not be considered until every other means of identifying its original position has been exhausted. When the record distance from one such interdependent corner to another varies substantially with the field measurement obtained in the re-survey, the surveying method of apportionment may yield the most probable correct location of the lost corner.

Griffin elaborated on proportionate measure, or apportionment, stating that apportionment is only appropriate when retracement fails. One of the main reasons for this is that it is a rule of last resort, but sometimes it is hastily applied before a thorough search has been accomplished. The result of apportionment is that the mathematical proportion may yield the most probable location of the corner. It may yield the most probable location. Surveys should not be based on the law of probabilities or mathematical and statistical projections defining their limits, level of confidence, or statistical error (in addition to all of the resulting measurement error). Neither probability nor statistics will yield the location, only a probable estimate of the location based on the information given, however faulty.

Once again, to properly locate a corner, one should be diligent enough to be certain that all reasonable possibilities have been explored. Only when that fails should one resort to a reasonable (?) guess.

About the Author

  • Donald A. Wilson, LLS, PLS, RPF, Land Boundary Consultant
    Donald A. Wilson, LLS, PLS, RPF, Land Boundary Consultant
    Don Wilson is president of Land & Boundary Consultants, Inc.; and part owner of and the lead instructor in Surveyors Educational Seminars, a member of the Professional Surveyor/RedVector Dream Team providing online courses for continuing education; and a regular instructor in the University of New Hampshire Continuing Education System for 25 years. He is also co-author of several well known texts.

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