The Folly of Finality

"That the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor right over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when he himself ceases to be, and reverts to society." Thomas Jefferson 1789

I had to chuckle recently when I read an article about the land development process and the surveyors role in it. The composition began with the premise that land, our once-abundant resource, is now much more scarce because of development that has occurred over the years. Of course I cant speak for every neighborhood, but I am pretty sure my neighborhood has as much land as its ever had (and I live in the middle of a city). I suspect it is the same everywhere.

I know what the well-intentioned authors of the article were trying to say, but its focus on development ignores the subsequent potential of redevelopment. Our role in any redevelopment effort can be considerably more complex than in a development of "raw" land. Uses of land, be they residential, commercial or industrial, have the potential of leaving traces of their tenure behind, affecting subsequent uses of the property. The identification and management of those residual effects complicates efforts already demanding. For example, careless disposal of hazardous waste poses a significant hurdle to redevelopment. The discovery and mitigation of the damage caused by such an action must occur before any new use can safely be instituted. In the same manner, diverse legal interests in land such as prescriptive easements, latent fee holdings, abandoned streets, etc. may have been left behind after the earlier use ceased and must be accounted for and avoided (or extinguished) before any new use can commence. All prior uses of land potentially complicate re-use. The more intense the prior use of the land has been, the more challenging the redevelopment effort is likely to be, and the more skill required of the redevelopment team.

Demand For "Brownfields"

Many sites today are potential candidates for redevelopment, but have been left with obstacles for future use. These sites often have attractive features such as water frontage or convenient access to major thoroughfares, but also have unattractive features such as those discussed above. While the economics of redevelopment might argue against the re-use of these parcels now, as the availability of conveniently-located "raw" land dwindles the demand for these "brownfields" will inevitably increase.

It is always easier to develop land unscathed by any previous use of man. But as the authors of the article above pointed out, land enjoying that history, in some areas, is in short supply. Nevertheless, assuming that we have no role in those regions, simply because vast areas of previously undeveloped land no longer exist, overlooks our unique contributions in identifying and locating pitfalls left by previous use. Who knows better the potential impact of that old fence line? Who can locate obscure references to ancient easements in old title documents? Others may attempt to solve such puzzles, but the surveyor is the best hope for a correct opinion. Beyond that, there is no compelling reason why surveyors cannot assume an even greater role in the balance of the redevelopment process. Attention to detail and an analytical approach to problems have always been the hallmarks of the surveyor. Redevelopment can benefit from such abilities, perhaps to a greater extent than initial development does. The exclusion of the surveyor from participation in those traditionally non-surveying tasks may be more the result of the surveyor avoiding additional involvement than any intentional exclusion on the part of others. Surveyors need to be more aggressive in offering their services, and perhaps more open to providing alternative services.

Some of the local jurisdictions in my area require what is termed a "Final" Development Plan. Final?? How presumptuous to imply that our actions today will never be scrapped in the future! Is there anything we can do, short of nuclear contamination, to prevent our successors from obliterating our work should it be deemed expedient to them to do so? Probably not.

Our Contributions

Of course, there is no guarantee that redevelopment will occur on a particular parcel of land. It is possible that the initial use of the land will continue for a millennium; witness the many European and Asian structures of that vintage. The forces which converge to make that possibledurability, sustained demand for the use, and no overwhelming demand for a subsequent usepotentially await every parcel. To be sure, most developers would be very gratified to have their developments mature into that fraternity. Few structures are constructed with a definite lifespan contemplated. Most are intended to stand perpetually (or as perpetually as is economically feasible). Yet, in spite of all that, buildings are razed every day, and with them the plans and schemes of the earlier developers.

Since we have no reliable way to forecast which developments will withstand the march of time and which will not, it is vital that our contributions to any development effort be capable of withstanding scrutiny for generations. Our products must accurately account for the prior uses for the protection of the later users. Subsequent uses of property must always recognize the interests that exist at the inception of the later use. Surveyors are more acutely aware of that than anyone else.

Carefully executed, single parcels (or perhaps many contiguous parcels) can be evaluated and acquired to form the basis for a new project. After doing so, a developer may execute a design that most suits his needs. For many areas, this may be the most lucrative market in the early part of the next century. Complicated? Of course. Expensive? Probably. Possible? Almost certainlybut only with the aid of a competent surveyor.

Copyright 1996 By Joel M. Leininger, LS

About the Author

Joel M. Leininger, LS

Joel Leininger, Associate Editor of the magazine, is the managing partner of S. J. Martenet & Co., a 154-year-old surveying firm in Baltimore, Maryland. He lectures frequently around the country on surveying-related subjects. Leininger has authored more than thirty articles and essays dealing with surveying and retracement, some of which have been published in Canada and Australia. Prior to his work at S.J. Martenet, he served as department head at Fisher, Collins and Carter, and as project manager with Daft-McCune-Walker, both in Baltimore. Leininger has also served as both Contributing Editor and Associate Editor of Professional Surveyor Magazine. He served five years on the Maryland Board of Registration and is a past-president of the Maryland Society of Surveyors. Contact Joel Article List Below