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How Does a Government Identify and Describe Land

How Does a Government Identify and Describe Land

The United States government identifies
and surveys land according to a system known as the Public Land Survey System
(PLSS). The PLSS is a guideline of land descriptions
 

The overall purpose of the PLSS is to
obtain an accurate land description for the purposes of regulation and sale to
prospective owners, as well as the demarcation of municipalities, cities, and
states. Public land surveys are conducted on the state, local, and national
level. Historic surveys of the US territories were conducted each time the
government acquired new land through purchase (Louisiana Purchase) or conquest
(Mexican American War). The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was the first
sanctioned survey of acquisitions ordered by the US federal government.
Beforehand, all surveys had been voluntarily conducted by the respective
localities.

The surveying process begins with the
designation of the Principal Meridian. The Principal Meridian is the
north/south line of a property, which divides it into eastern and western
regions. This is cross-referenced with the surveyed land’s Base Line, the
corresponding east/west line which designates northern regions from southern
regions. This cross referenced point is called the Point of Origin, and is the
starting place for all government land surveys
 

The latitude/longitude determined by the
point of origin allows government surveyors to demarcate regions of the area
into townships. Unlike the colloquial term for a city or urban area, a Survey
Township is a land description which measures a unit of land equal to
thirty-six square miles. Individual Survey Townships may span across several
civil townships, and do not bear relevance to municipality. However, early
surveys conducted by the US government attempted to set up civil townships in
accordance with Survey Townships, a measure encouraged by the Homestead Act of
1862.

The derivation of the point of origin
from the Principal Meridian/Baseline intersection is part of the Government
Rectangular Survey Description. The goal of the Rectangular system was to
facilitate land reform set forth by the General Land Office of the United
States. While early surveys in newly acquired territories were rushed and incorporated
practices of Meandering (surveying based on the landscape itself), the
rectangular land description of Township/Section helps ensure greater accuracy
in government surveying once the point of origin is determined. Surveyors are
no longer constrained by irregularities in topography or the dangers of the
frontier as they were in the earlier government surveys. These improvements in
demarcation help produce fairer, more accurate land descriptions for public
appraisal or purchase
.

What are Metes and Bounds?

What are Metes and Bounds?

Metes and Bounds is derived from the original system of land description employed by the English government in the pre-colonial era. The system traveled to the continental United States by way of the original colonies, and was the basis of the earliest land survey conducted stateside. 
 
The foundation of the system lies in the geography and topography of the locality being surveyed. Much like the PLSS used in the United States today, the surveying process has a point of origin where the land description begins and ends. The surveyor begins at the point of origin and conducts straight runs to the boundaries of the property, forming a running description of the property based on the natural boundaries and monuments.  
Common natural boundaries include rivers, cliffs, rock formations, etc. In addition to these boundaries, surveyors would take note of natural “monuments” in the area, which would help denote the boundary line between the surveyed property and the adjacent land. In the event that no such natural monuments were observed, man-made structures such as posts and flags were used to demarcate boundary lines. Such is the origin of the term “metes and bounds”. Metes refers to the measure and direction of the straight runs taken from the point of origin. Likewise Bounds refers to the natural topography of the region which borders and sections the property. Its unlikely that would one own land on both sides of a river or at the top and bottom of a steep cliff.
 
The system of Metes and Bounds was widely used in England and in the colonies for many centuries, but was eventually relinquished by the United States government in favor of the Rectangular survey, which does not face the same restrictions of natural obstacles. Besides those restrictions, other weaknesses of the Metes and Bounds survey system were consistency and maintenance. In early times, unpaved roads and trails (both of which were used as man made monuments for demarcation) often changed location and direction without public registry. 
This was especially true on large parcels of private land. A change in the description of a boundary threw off the entire survey description. This was because Metes and Bounds surveys were summarized in prose, taking an “as-you-go” approach to the land description. One out-of-place boundary could create drastic irregularities when it came time to create a plat or visual representation of the land.
 
Petty disputes between neighbors also arose from the placement of man-made monuments on boundary lines. Many neighbors in Elizabeth I’s court accused one another of moving the markers to alter the size of the property, or to claim more favorable topography. As the surveys were written with directions centered around the monuments, this made it very difficult to settle these disputes in court or provide a verdict. 
The weaknesses of this system led the United States government to pass the Land Ordinance of 1785, which began conducting new surveys and revising older ones under the guidelines of the rectangular system of land descriptions.

The Facts About Plotted Descriptions of Land

The Facts About Plotted Descriptions of Land

The United States General Land Office is responsible for conducting surveys of all 50 states and the various territories and acquisitions. Once such a survey is conducted according to the guidelines set forth in the PLSS, a Plotted Description of the land is produced by the surveyor. This land description comes in the visual form of a drawn-to-scale map called a “Plat”. 
This plat shows the divisions of the land according to the surveyor’s work, and often contains topographical information on the region collected at the ground level. A plat can represent forms of natural vegetation, elevation, and soil composition. The plat is further divided into cities, streets, blocks and alleys. The purpose of this practice is twofold: that the plat accurately represent the territory of the described locality, and that the blocks may be sectioned off and sold as private real estate.
Plotted description of land can have many uses for the state and local governments in the area. Plats can help city planners designate traffic flow, and strategically place interchanges and roads in accordance to land description.  Additional information provided by topographical plats can help avoid major road construction in areas where highway maintenance would be too difficult or costly in conditions of heavy traffic or inclement weather. 
In addition, to adhere to zoning and enclosure laws, a plat must ensure that all owners of private property may access their property from public roadways.  If this condition is not met, a property owner would have no choice but to trespass to access his or her private land, thus violating their neighbors property rights (subjecting themselves to litigation or personal danger).
Some city ordinances and zoning laws dictate limits on lot sizes. In these cases, an accurate land description helps designate acceptably sized lots in accordance with regulations. This prevents an oversized piece of property from being illegally bought or sold within local limits. In addition to size limits on land transactions, there are zoning laws that regulate land use and construction. 
For example, in many localities, it is illegal to build on a parcel of land without previous inspection from a licensed property inspector. The Department of Public works may set restrictions on land use with regard to drainage and utility access. If any construction interferes with the local regulations, said construction is a zoning violation.
New plotted descriptions of land parcels are also penned when owners modify or change the land structure itself. When a landowner consolidates a nearby group of land parcels into a larger unit, a new plat must be constructed to adhere to zoning laws. 
Conversely, when a portion of land is parceled off and sold to a third party, a new plat must be constructed to provide the government with an up to date land description of the property. Finally, a new plat must be constructed if surveyors or landowners come across a recorded error or irregularity in the land description.