How Does a Government Identify and Describe Land

How Does a Government Identify and Describe Land

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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.

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