Piping Problems

Our office manager Marie had placed the stack of survey request packets she had processed on my desk. It was the end of a day of field work and I was going to arrange the next days assignments. Several were flood elevation requests, and I set those aside for the levels crew to schedule. The remaining four requests were boundary surveys, three of which were mortgage surveys. I reserved those for my crew.

Marie had seen to it that each boundary request packet included a deed and other relevant data. One included a full title binder and an old survey plat.

"That's a break," I thought. Usually, I would have had to pry the title binder out of the attorney's hands with a crowbar. The request was for Lot 36, Wilks Estates. I knew the subdivision well.
Henry Wilks had owned a wide and long tract of land that was bordered by a drainage canal. In 1956, Wilks subdivided the tract by having a drawing made by an architect, who happened to be his son. The drawing of Wilks Estates depicted a street, Wilks Drive, with a 40-foot right-of-way. It was bordered on each side by a tier of lots. Each lot was 70 feet wide and 150 feet deep. The western tier of lots backed up to the public drainage canal. Wilks Drive extended between two paved public roads. There were no improvements or infrastructure created during the process, just a drawing that Wilks recorded.

In 1968, Henry Wilks convinced the governing body of the parish that it was wise public policy to have a paved road between the existing public streets, so Wilks Drive was paved with a concrete curb and gutter roadway at public expense. Wilks added water and sewer mains at his own expense. He then began to sell the home sites.

The next day, I was going to perform a boundary survey on Lot 36, Wilks Estates, municipal number 5564 Wilks Drive for Nit Pic Title Insurance, Inc. The boundary survey was to be included in the instruments for the sale and mortgage. The survey crew was going to be me, Joe Figgaro, and a new kid we were training.

The survey of Lot 36 went quickly. We found three of the monuments set by the previous surveyor. The fourth was reset, and several corners north and south of Lot 36 along Wilks Drive were recovered. All of the marks were in agreement with the subdivision plan, more or less. I then occupied one of the front corners and, using a total station, we located house corners, fences, sheds, and other features. I then occupied another corner and repeated the process, making certain that at least 30 percent of the points we located on the second setup were some of the same points we had located during the first setup. All that remained was to measure the dimensions of the house and other features.

I went to the street and faced the house so that I could sketch the home site in my field book. I happened to stand over the catch basin in the roadway curbing as I did this. Then, for no particular reason, I looked down into the catch basin. What I saw made my stomach turn. There was only one pipe exiting the catch basin. It was a 15-inch diameter concrete drain, and it was aimed directly at the house. I stopped sketching and returned to the fenced rear yard of the house. There was a stand of small trees and brush along the rear fence line that almost obscured the canal along the rear boundary.

We climbed over the fence and searched along the canal bank for some sign of a drain exiting the bank. The brush was too thick to see much, so I told my assistants to wait there while I returned to the catch basin on the street. I struck the metal frame of the catch basin several times with a hammer. Guided by the sound that emanated from the drain, Joe found the exit into the canal. The catch basin and drain outfall locations were then shot and added to the database.

When I processed the data held in the collector, the image that appeared was what I had feared. The drain line ran directly under the house! The title binder made no reference to any servitude of any kind. The subdivision plat was recorded long before the roads were paved and the drains installed. What was to be a routine survey had degenerated into a big problem. I finished the survey plat and had a courier deliver it to Nit Pic Title. This sale was going to be canceled. No one would accept a mortgage on a house with that sort of encroachment.

The phone calls and cries for clarification began to roll in. Finally, I had to schedule a meeting at the house with the owners, representatives of the present mortgage holders, Parish officials, and the prospective buyers. It was bad news for all. The present owners were most upset. They were moving to another state and they needed to sell this property to finance their new home. I felt terrible about it all, but there was nothing I could do.

The next day I received an irate phone call from the owner. He had consulted an attorney and he was going to sue me! It seems that the ALTA/ACSM standards require a surveyor to report all visible encroachments. He contended that because the culvert was not visible, I should not have reported it! He mentioned the name of the attorney. The lawyer was a notorious ambulance chaser who specialized in quick settlements out of court.

"Do what you think you have to do," I said and hung up. This was going to be a new one. I was going to be sued for doing a good job. As it turned out, that shoe never fell. I never heard from the attorney or the owner again. That was over 10 years ago, so I guess I can close the book on another strange story.

About the Author

  • Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS
    Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS
    Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS is assistant division manager and senior project manager at SJB Group, LLC in Louisiana. He has been involved in the practice of land surveying for more than 30 years and is the author of "A Guide to Understanding Land Surveys 3rd ed." John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.

» Back to our May 2009 Issue