Drawing the Line

For skies grow thick with aviating swine Ere men pass up the chance to draw a line.

Surveyors may not be much respected, but they are feared. Whenever they show up, there is the apprehension that the status quo will be upset. Either something new is in the works or something old is out of place.

That is the background for articles and books with the phrase "drawing the line" in their title. The phrase is just too good to pass up. It has the implied figurative meaning of a limit of toleration, of drawing a line in the sand. But in regard to surveying, it is meant literally, referring to the pulling of a chain or tape (in the old days) across land or a pen across paper.

The line in question in the upcoming cases is a jurisdictional boundary. Although the boundary of privately owned land is necessarily included, the principal concern is the drawing of the line of a municipality, county, state or even country in which that land is situated. The issue, of course, is the location of the line. More specifically, it is the apparent mis-location of the line, or at least an uncertainty in its location, that warrants its marking. The point of writing about its marking is the often jarring dislocation that results from the relocation of a jurisdictional line.

Lines in Question

Most recently (8/2/2002, to be exact), Drawing the Line headed an article in the Wall Street Journal, written by Charles Forelle; I read the reprint of it in the November 2002 issue of The Empire State Surveyor. The article has several subtitles: Aided by Satellites, Boundary Disputes Make a Comeback; Cheaper More-Precise Surveys Lead U.S. Towns, Counties To Redefine Their Limits; The Lilligren's Debatable State. As these subtitles indicate, the article ranges far and wide. The gist of it is that the low cost and easy use of GPS equipment is creating havoc. Homes and businesses turn out to be in a municipality, or even a state, other than the one in which they were all along considered to be, straining the owners' nerves and pocketbooks.

A year earlier, the phrase appeared in the title of a book by Edwin Danson. This book is subtitled How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. That border, between Maryland and Pennsylvania (including, at that time, Delaware) had been litigated for fifty years, and unsuccessfully surveyed for another thirty, until Mason and Dixon tackled it. As it turns out, the monuments they set to mark the line are as much as 900 feet off the legally established line of latitude (attributable to systematic errors). The real problem in this case, however, was that this line was nearly twenty miles south of the line described in the original grant to William Penn. Had it been strictly held, Philadelphia would have been in Maryland. But as a result of its relocation, settlers, mostly to the west of the Susquehanna, who legitimately had colonized Maryland, suddenly found themselves in Pennsylvania. There were skirmishes. But commissioners of both states approved the surveyed line, and the inhabitants of the land had no choice but to accept their new status or move south. The line, of course became the most famous line in America a century later, when skirmishes over slavery escalated into the Civil War, and the line, extended symbolically westward, defined the two sides of the war.

But even before Danson, Mark Monmonier had appropriated the phrase (1995) for a book subtitled Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy. Monmonier's intention is to make us critical of lines drawn on paper. He devotes chapters to a misleading map projection, a map of questionable authenticity, interpretive maps of continental drift, gerrymandering, and environmental hazard risk maps, among others. The longest chapter treats the use of maps in boundary disputes, which is worth reading all by itself.

Best Fit

In my own practice, I once did an eight-lot residential subdivision, for which I obtained approval from one township, even though it appeared to be in another. A little more than four decades ago, the county was surveyed and monuments were placed along all township lines. Some of these monuments, however, differed by hundreds of feet from the lines shown on the county tax maps. The lines on the tax maps came from the first county map (coincidentally prepared in 1862—yes, that's the right century—by the founder of my former business). I can only guess that this map was a composite of compass headings, readings taken from early odometers, and the municipalities outlined after plotting their legal descriptions. The tax maps were prepared from aerial photographs, but the superimposition of boundary lines was simply a best fit. Some of the municipalities over time legally adopted the marked lines, but the two in question had not. The zoning requirements of the two adjoining townships were almost identical, making the jurisdiction virtually irrelevant.

In a more personal case, the jurisdiction was far from irrelevant. My being in this country can be traced to the drawing of a national boundary almost nine decades ago. The boundaries of European countries have forever and often been redrawn, and we still witness the frictions created thereby. After the First World War, the boundary between Austria and Hungary was drawn along a small river just west of the village in which I was born, even though all its inhabitants had Germanic names and spoke (Austrian) German. After the Second World War, most of these people from my village and others up and down the border were deported and resettled in Bavaria, conveniently making the land they had owned and farmed available for communization. As deported persons, these people were allowed to immigrate to this country. Many, including my family, did.

That is how I come to be here, bending your ear about the dislocation that results from the relocation of lines of jurisdiction. But, unlike many of the people written about in the article and books mentioned above, I cannot decry the turn of events that brought me here. I'm sure I would be less well off elsewhere.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at willischmidt@verizon.net.

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