Surveying a boundary involves research, locating evidence, measurement, calculation, considering boundary law principles, analysis, drafting and communications.
When surveyors determine an existing boundary, their challenge is to locate the boundary where it was originally established. Since many boundaries were created decades or more ago, it can be a challenge finding the required information. Surveyors usually start with a Land Registry Office search but unlike lawyers their search must go beyond looking at the current parcel abstract. They must search back far enough to understand how and when the boundary was created in relationship to surrounding parcels. Often not all information is available in the Land Registry Office. They may have to retrieve the original crown patent maintained by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, find related records available in the Archives of Ontario, search for municipalities for appropriate by-laws, and consult a variety of other information such as local historical information, water elevations and historical photography. They also must acquire information from other surveyors that may have surveyed in the area and left evidence of the boundary (approximately only about one quarter of survey plans are stored in the Land Registry Office). A surveyor may have invested several hours into research and incurred significant disbursements before getting to the field.
Once at the site they (or their staff) will look for evidence which will include survey monuments, natural boundaries (e.g. the water’s edge), and other physical evidence such as fences or buildings that may be related to the location of the boundary. They will look for features that may encroach over the boundary. At this point they can start measuring. Surveyors and their technicians use a variety of advanced technology to measure today, ranging from robotic total stations to global navigation satellite systems (e.g. GPS) and data collectors. It is common for surveyors to have over $100,000 invested in equipment for each crew. Measurements will be recorded using a combination of sketches and digital files to depict relationships of the features captured.
Calculations are now performed to understand the relationships of the evidence tied in. This is compared against documentary evidence (i.e. information shown in descriptions and plans) to determine how it fits together. As should be expected, often old measurements that were determined with steel chains and compasses shown in the documentary evidence do not match the dimensions measured on the ground with modern technology. Additionally, physical evidence (e.g. survey monuments, fences, and buildings) might not align with a single location of the boundary. The surveyor must apply boundary law principles to help determine which evidence should be afforded the most weight in determining the location of the boundary. As an example, they may have to consider the priority of severances (e.g. if someone thought they owned 200 feet of frontage but only had 198 feet and sold 100 feet, they would not be left with 100 feet but instead 98 feet). The weighted evidence is then analysed to determine the most likely location of the original boundary. Surveying is not just a matter of measuring but requires professional judgement. At this point the location of any new survey monuments required or new boundaries for severances can be calculated and survey monuments planted.
All this information is conveyed to the office where calculations are performed and checked prior to the plan being drafted using modern drafting software and equipment. As with field equipment, office equipment such as scanners, plotters, computer stations and specialized software can easily cost more than $50,000. The plan should be independently reviewed and checked.
Ultimately the surveyor must prepare an internal report describing which evidence was used and any anomalies that had to be addressed. They generally also prepare a report for the client that addresses any issues uncovered during the survey (e.g. physical features that may be over a boundary line or limitations on the property such as easements or rights-of-way).
This short article is a simplification of the process, which can be quite involved and can be iterative (e.g. new evidence found in the field can involve additional research). It does not address other knowledge required such as the multiple statutes, regulations and by-laws that need to be considered. Surveyors are required to have a specialized university degree, complete several years of experience, and pass written and oral professional exams before they can obtain their license to practice for the public. In some of the areas of the province with older surveys and specific circumstances surveyors have built libraries of specialized information that helps them re-establish boundaries. The time you see survey crews in the field represents a small portion of the efforts into performing a survey.