FieldNotes: County Boundaries by GIS?

Virginia Association of Surveyors Legislative Call to Action – SB804

Recently, it came to the attention of the Virginia Association of Surveyors (VAS) that Senate Bill 804 (SB804), introduced and passed by the Virginia Senate, was making its way through the legislative process for a final vote in the House of Delegates. If passed by the House and signed by the governor, this bill would permit a voluntary adjustment of the boundary between two counties in Virginia, Goochland and Louisa, to simply be shown on a GIS map.  All licensed surveyors are fully aware that, while GIS maps are a great tool, they are not accurate surveys of property boundaries, between either individual parcels of lands or political subdivisions.

Additionally, VAS was greatly concerned that the passage of the bill would set an unwelcome precedent not only in Virginia, but throughout the country as well.  Despite last-minute lobbying by VAS, this bill did indeed pass the Senate and the House.  Subsequently, a delegation from VAS met with a representative of the governor’s office to express the concerns of the surveying community.  They argued that, should the governor sign this bill and allow it to become law, a dangerous precedent would be set that would not be in the best interest of the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

The governor’s office agreed with the surveyors’ concerns, and, after further negotiations between VAS and representatives of Goochland County, a proposed amendment to SB804 was submitted to the governor.  He agreed with the recommendations from VAS, and subsequently the amended bill was successfully passed by both the Senate (33-Y 6-N) and the House (90-Y 6-N).

The gist for SB804 is that the counties of Goochland and Louisa had voluntarily adopted a boundary agreement.  As part of the process, it had been traditionally required that such a petition to the circuit court for approval have attached to it (i) a plat depicting the change in the boundaries of the localities as agreed; or (ii) a metes and bounds description of the new boundary as agreed upon by the two localities. 

However, SB804 added a third option (iii): regarding the boundary between the Counties of Louisa and Goochland, a Geographic Information System (GIS) map depicting the change in the boundaries of the localities as agreed with a general description of the new boundary line. This particular boundary is approximately 24 miles long and had been either unknown or in dispute for years, causing problems for determining school district locations, census results, and property tax issues, to name a few.

A boundary agreement was clearly necessary for a resolution of the associated problems, but the cost of having the boundary surveyed was beyond the budget allocated.  Therefore, Goochland County proposed an agreement to a boundary line between the two counties with the line depicted by a GIS map as per option iii.

Among the arguments made to the governor’s representative by the VAS was the fact that, although SB804 is specific to the two named counties, the precedent it would set is inappropriate and would result in future hardship on the respective counties and land owners affected by the proposed location of the county boundary line.  The hardship would result from the uncertainty of the boundary line’s true location as a result of simply depicting it on a GIS map.  Such depiction would not provide adequate information to place monuments along the line on the ground.

Accordingly, VAS proposed the following amended language for SB804: (iii) regarding the boundary between the Counties of Louisa and Goochland, a map depicting the changes in the boundaries of the localities as having been established with Virginia State Plane Coordinates, South Zone meeting National Geodetic Survey standards. As noted above, Goochland County agreed with this alternative language, and the amended bill SB804 was voted into law by the Virginia General Assembly on April 3, 2013.

Even though this bill is narrow in its scope and affects only two Virginia political jurisdictions, it will likely set a precedent with other political jurisdictions within the Commonwealth and potentially nationally, as well.  A copy of the finalized bill can be accessed online here.


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