Expand Your Horizons, by Measuring Water Boundaries

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series December 2020/January 2021

If you are like the average Professional Land Surveyor, your practice area has been in a certain sub-specialty such as land boundaries, construction stakeout, or topographic mapping for years or decades. Water boundaries? Not so much.

You are very good at what you do, enjoy it, and have built a profitable niche in your community. At this point, your firm is comfortable, lucrative, and generally happy. Instead of resting on your laurels, why not branch out of your area of comfort and try something new.

Many years ago, while completing my PhD in Gainesville, Florida, I made the leap from solely performing boundary surveys to completing riparian (water) boundary surveys. It quickly became apparent that surveying riparian lands for waterfront property was incredibly rewarding.

The methods for allocating riparian lands are quite different from land boundary proportioning. The property owners sincerely appreciated the help provided in permitting or litigating the extent of the available docking space, and the time spent around the coasts and lakes of Florida was quite relaxing. It sure beat surveying I-95 around Orlando.

Rivers, lakes, coastal water across the country present the surveyor with a unique challenge.

Rivers, lakes, coastal water across the country present the surveyor with a unique challenge.

Waterfront property owners request boat dock surveys and/or riparian surveys for many reasons. The first is to gain permission from state and/or local authorities to build a boat dock. Dock setback requirements vary by community but documenting and mapping the distances from the neighboring docks to the proposed dock is an essential step of any dock permit. This is a bureaucratic process but typically non-confrontational. The second reason property owners request boat dock surveys is because the landowner believes that a neighbor is encroaching on the owner’s riparian rights or using the owner’s dock without permission. While the subjective nature of riparian allocation can be frustrating to laymen, owners are often just as grateful to surveyors for helping them document such trespasses.

The final reason that dock surveys are performed is because of a change in the sinuosity or depth of the uplands. Imagine a lake experiences a sudden rescission of water and the entire cove disappears. Where do the owners move their docks and how have the riparian lines changed?

No matter the reasons for the dock survey request, using the proper survey methods is absolutely key to avoid surveyor negligence, produce an authoritative riparian survey, and have a happy client. I always tell people that when the survey map and survey report are delivered, every client should mutter the words “He was expensive, but it was worth it.”

There are few riparian surveying textbooks and almost no continuing education classes available on the subject. Even among the three land surveying degrees that I have collected, there was not a single dock or riparian class offered.

So how can we educate ourselves on riparian surveying methods?

Read the Few Textbooks Available.

Water Boundaries (George Cole) is probably the only text solely dedicated to water boundaries. Legal textbooks on land surveying and land title such as Clark on Surveying (Walter Robillard), Brown’s Boundary Control (Robillard), and Evidence and Procedures (Robillard) are also essential reads.

Further, during my PhD research on a riparian survey topic, I found many fantastic peer-reviewed journal articles. Just search Google Scholar for these articles.

Digest as Many Court Cases as You Can

In the field of land surveying, practicing in different states is as simple as knowing each state’s acts and rules. The priority of calls or junior/senior rights doesn’t change much from Georgia to New Mexico. Surveying docks or water boundaries, on the other hand, can be very different from Florida to Georgia because of the local and state civil court cases that govern the rights of private owners and the public.

For example, Florida gives owners the “right to view,” as does New York state, which is not present in almost every other state. Surveyors don’t often just read court cases for fun, but if you are going to practice competently, then state civil cases on these related subjects is required reading.

Appreciate the Significance of Statutes

I don’t think there is a state in the Union that doesn’t have a series of statutes that govern the ownership, leasing, use, and surveying of docks. For example, Florida’s 253.12(9) and (10), F.S. (Application for Recordable Document for Lands filled prior to July 1, 1975) may grant waterfront owners of coastal lands a sort of “get out of jail free card” for filling lands prior to that date. But often times, attorneys and landowners try to use this statute incorrectly to claim state property even when fill was not used.

If you are surveying such coastal waters, you, as the surveyor, must understand how the various statutes affect ownership of coastal lands.

Practice Your New Trade

The last suggestion I have for practicing in the area of docks and water boundaries is to go out and complete some of these surveys. The first few projects will require an enormous amount of research, research, and more research.

But the more surveys you perform, the faster and better your team will get at completing such tasks. But please, don’t just go out to the job site, extend the property lines at 90-degree angles into the water, and call it a day. I’ve seen too many poorly performed dock surveys that look like that.

My final advice for surveying water boundaries, and docks, is to always produce surveys and reports that can withstand even the harshest collateral attack. For every water boundary survey that I have produced, the neighbors have subpoenaed me to testify in either a deposition or trial.

When I swore the oath, I was 100 percent confident in all of the research, fieldwork, and analysis performed for my client. I could not think of any other work that I could have done that would have produced a different riparian boundary. Be that confident.

Rivers, lakes, coastal water across the country present the surveyor with a unique challenge.

Rivers, lakes, coastal water across the country present the surveyor with a unique challenge.

Enjoy some xyHt features on other aspects of water-based surveying: Surveying Beyond the Water’s Edge, Stretching Surveyors Across the Water, Hydrography by Remote
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