Surveying is a dry topic at best, at least to most of us. Oregon Field Guide rebroadcast last week a fascinating segment on surveying, though, telling how every square mile of Oregon was surveyed back in the 1800’s, and how the practice continues to this day. Surveying in the United States dates back to Thomas Jefferson and the Revolutionary War, but most of the original surveying in Oregon didn’t start until the 1850’s due to the Donation Land Claim Act, which encouraged even more Pioneers to come west along the Oregon Trail. The early settlers got 160 acres for free if they improved the land and stayed for 5 years. Interestingly, homesteading continued through the 1970s in the lower 48 States and through the 1980s in Alaska.
Unless you’re a surveyor, logger, or involved in a property-line dispute, you probably don’t care too much about surveys. However, surveys form the basis for legal descriptions on deeds, which are, of course, critical in real estate transactions. When you sell a property the land is conveyed by signing the deed which is then recorded at the county. Interestingly, when you sell or convey property, the legal description only describes the land, not the improvements. According to the Field Guide segment, a couple of deaths a year in the U.S. result from property line disputes. Yikes. Loggers care about property lines because they don’t want to harvest someone else’s trees, a problem known as timber trespass, which can lead to treble damages.
All surveys in Oregon, one way or another, reference the Willamette Stone, located in west Portland, and first sited in 1851. The stone usually draws a yawn even from the most devoted real estate nerds, even if they’ve made special trips to see it. The Willamette Stone is the intersection of the Principal Willamette Meridian and the Baseline; so it’s the zero or reference point. The Baseline corresponds to about Stark Street in Portland, and the Willamette Meridian crosses through Walterville in Lane County.
Driving through Oregon’s splendid back-roads is a great way to spend an afternoon. If you do find yourself driving around on BLM roads, you’ll see their baffling road signs, which consist of a series of numbers and dashes. If you have cell service, your smart phone’s GPS can tell you exactly where you’re at, but cell service can be spotty in the country. To use a real-life example, if you saw you were on BLM Road 19-6-16 you could get a rough idea of where you were from the sign. (BLM road nomenclature is from the start of the road, so unless you happen to be at the start, positioning is only rough). BLM roads are named by Township, Range, & Section. Townships and ranges are 6 miles across, so, the example is 19 townships south of Portland, or 114 miles, and 6 ranges away from Walterville, in this case West, or 36 miles. Remembering to draw your sections, starting with “1” in the upper right corner locates you to the nearest square mile, or in the upper northwest corner of the grid. Where is this place? Roughly Alma Oregon, a largely abandoned logging town, 22 miles west southwest of Eugene.
Even if you don’t drive around on logging roads, you’ll see the same type of numbering system on your Lane County property tax bill. For instance, this is how the County shows Bell’s office on River Road: 17-04-24-34-04200. Translating this get us 17 townships south of Portland (or 102 miles), 4 sections west of Walterville (24 miles), 24 is the section number, and 34 is the location in section 24. 34 indicates the parcel is in 3rd quarter section (bottom left) and 4th quarter of the 3rd quarter section (bottom right of the bottom left). A section is 640 square acres, a quarter section is 160 acres, and a quarter-quarter is 40 square acres. So, the 34 locates the parcel to within 40 acres on the globe. This 40 square acres corresponds to an area of 1,320 feet x 1,320 feet. 04200 is the tax lot number, which doesn’t indicate position on a map. Hideously boring? Probably to most.
Residential property sales in subdivisions are usually described by lot and blocks, such as: Lot 8, Block 2, Your Subdivision, as platted and recorded in Book 34, Page 22, Lane County Records. This is clean, simple, description works because Lane County has the survey information recorded, and it can be viewed by anyone. That survey information may involve a metes and bounds description, which isn’t something most people have ever even seen, let alone read. Units of measurement can be esoteric at best: links, chains, rods, furlongs, etc. Real estate attorneys, title officers and surveyors are about the only people that can actually understand a metes and bounds description.
In the millions of dollars worth of real estate transactions I’ve done, I rarely see anyone get a survey. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, it just rarely comes up. Even on country property, where boundaries are less clear than in subdivisions, they’re not often ordered. Sometimes, for commercial transactions they’ll be ordered to make sure buildings aren’t improperly sited. Frequently, though, they may incorporated as part of an extended ALTA title policy, so as to have the added benefit of title insurance. If property lines are in doubt it’s best to call a good surveyor out.