ALS News: Guardpost - Can I Get a Witness?!

Randy Smith, ALS
The purpose of this article is purely educational. Opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Practice Review Board.

Canada in the 1870s was an exciting and opportune - yet tenuous - place to live. Fresh on the heels of the 1867 Confederation, the summer of ’69 was a tough one for surveyors – their profession put them right in the middle of a tense situation in the newly-acquired Assiniboia land grant (a large area surrounding the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers; now downtown Winnipeg). Once the grant was complete, the government asked our fellow professionals to resurvey established river lots and the residents did not like it. The attempted resurvey (and other factors) led to what we now refer to as the Red River “Resistance.” As with anything new, in the early 1870s, our young nation and its government were doing their best with what they knew, but still had to think on the fly and make things up as they went.

Specific to the topic of this article, the Canadian government was not the only ones making things up as they went; it appears the surveyors were too. The first edition of the “Manual Showing the System of Survey Adopted for the Public Lands of Canada” was published in 1871. The instructions for witness monuments given were something like: “if you can’t put the corner where you need to, put something nearby and show it in your notes.”

By 1890, it seems things were getting a little more organized in the Dominion. The transcontinental railway had been completed (1885), the district of Alberta was created (1882), and the fourth edition of the renamed “Manual Showing the System of Survey of the Dominion Lands” was published. It gave a little more thought to witness monuments at that time, telling the surveyors to “push the line forward but put the pin or mound in with a trench, online as close as you can to where it should have been, and at an even number of chains.”

Since the publishing of that manual in 1890, many circular trenches have been dug, later retraced, and with expletives of joy and consternation, have been found by generations of surveyors all throughout our fine province.
Following the 1890 edition, the instructions for creating Part 2 witness monuments were clear, as are the instructions in today’s Manual of Standard Practice on correct use and interpretation of those monuments. What to do when we see a “Wit N” noted on a township plan and stumble upon the mound and “moat” in the field has been unambiguous for many years.
Yet here we are.
Shifting gears now from Part 2 monuments to Part 3 monuments, the Surveys Act makes it clear in 45(1) and 45(4) that we are to place a monument at every change of direction, curve, and intersection and, furthermore, that our measurements are to be shown on a registered plan. Yet the act appears to be mute on what to do when a monument cannot be reliably and accurately installed at a required location. So, as is so often the case, our self-governed association has filled in the gap left by legislation and answered the question in the Manual of Standard Practice (MSP). First of all, the MSP defines “reference monument” (in the glossary), and in Part C Section 3.1.5, establishes the practice of using a reference monument.
“Reference monuments may be used at an offset location if the actual corner is not accessible or if it is impractical to monument, but the reference monument must not create confusion or ambiguity.”
This sounds very similar to the 1890 Dominion Lands Manual when it says to use a witness monument “…in any other locality unfavorable to the planting of a post.” However, similar to the 1871 manual, the MSP gives no instructions other than telling us that the “…reference monument must not create confusion or ambiguity.”
A wise man once said “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” That is where the MSP leaves us.
Simple right? Well, like our government, it appears we are still working on it. The PRB regularly discusses monumentations, plans, and situations where a reference monument is used that definitely creates confusion and ambiguity. The following is a small collection of examples worth a look and maybe a discussion with coworkers and employees.

This example is one we see at the PRB fairly regularly. It creates uncertainty because it uses a cardinal direction to explain where the reference is. Many might assume that “W.” in this case should be interpreted as the extension of the bearing beginning with 272° as shown. Many others would argue that “W.” does in fact represent a cardinal direction and should be interpreted as 270°. With no instructions establishing either method and nothing on the plan telling which answer is correct, it is impossible to be sure.

This one is the same situation. Was the reference I planted at 183° or 180° (south) from the intended corner?

Next, contrast the last ones with this and the next example. Here, they have placed an “X” at the referenced corner and dimensioned it completely with bearing and distance. Where the monument is, relative to the corner it refers to, is perfectly clear and unambiguous. The only thing missing here is an explanation of why a reference monument was used in the first place.

This example is again, clearly dimensioned, though instead of a symbol at the referenced corner, they have used arrows to show what the dimensioning refers to.

Here, they describe the reference as “SE of Lot Corner” but the ambiguity of using a direction is eliminated by the dimensions shown on the plan. This apparent plan correction also showcases the importance of calling it what it is. The reference post planted should be called as such.
Next, we move to some right-of-way examples. Many of these use reference posts at the terminal end to protect the final monument from construction, as a safety measure related to proximity of buried pipes/cables and prohibition of on-lease ground disturbance or, simply, because there are facilities in the way. Whatever the reason is, it should be stated on the plan. As for the dimensioning, it is important to first decide where the end of the right-of-way is and then dimension the plan in a way that creates that end. Careful consideration should be given to the different ways those dimensions could be interpreted when it comes time for the next practitioner to re-establish the end of the right-of-way.

In the case above, there should be a reason given for using the reference I. They show a distance of 148.00 (I. to I.) and a distance of 50.00 from the Ref. I. to the end of the right-of-way. If a practitioner must establish the end of the right-of-way at a later time, should they hold the 50.00 and put the error in the remaining 98.00? Or proportion over the whole thing? Is it possible that the intention is to have the end of the right-of-way 50.0 from the lease boundary? It appears the Ref I. could be on that line even though there are no dimensions to lease corners. Could the lease boundary be used in the future to determine the end of the right-of-way if monuments are lost?

This example appears to be a reference post situation; however, it is not noted as a “Ref. I”, and no reason is given that it was not planted on the end of the right-of-way itself. The location (I. to I. distance) of the post is clear, and they have tied back to the actual end of the right-of-way by showing a “calc” distance. Though very common in road crossing situations, using “calc” is somewhat confusing. What does it really mean? How should that distance be used when re-establishing? Can it be used? It appears the intention is probably to end the right-of-way on the northern boundary of the road (note the Twp labels). But since the right-of-way does not continue beyond the south boundary of the road, and the post is not noted as a Ref. I., it is unclear. Should 20.84 be included in the proportion when re-establishing, or held as a fixed distance? Hopefully that works out to fall on the north boundary of the road, but what if it doesn’t? What could be done to make it clearer? Some have also argued personal preference to not use the “calc” method as shown here because it often gets overlooked when working with the plan.

Here there is no question as to why, and it is clearly dimensioned where.
There was clear logic to the methods described in the 1871 manual for creating witness monuments. There were likewise sound arguments for the more prescriptive methods outlined in the 1890 manual. Those methods were the precursors to the current instructions we have for creating reference posts. Our current standards require professionalism, are simple yet elegant, and cover all possible situations. If you need to use a reference post, be clear about why and where you put it. Clear and unambiguous. One of the great things about surveying is that we are faced with new circumstances every day. There is always something a little different to look at, a new set of conditions to apply the rules to, a unique problem to solve within the same old routine of a right of way or subdivision survey. Similarly, we are a diverse group of professionals; we do not all think the same way and it is very possible to interpret methods and plans in completely different ways.
The next time you put in a reference post and show it on your plan, try to imagine how its location and labelling could be misconstrued, then change something: add a note, add a dimension, ask a friend what they think.
In the immortal words made popular by the Rolling Stones…. Can I get a witness? I want a witness!

10020 - 101A Avenue
Suite 1000
Edmonton, Alberta T5J 3G2
1-800-665-2572 (Toll Free)

The Alberta Land Surveyors' Association (ALSA) is a self-regulating professional association legislated under the Land Surveyors Act. The Association regulates the practice of land surveying for the protection of the public.