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Not all land surveyors are exempt from civil and criminal trespass. William Bower is hoping to change that in Maryland.
William Bower, Senior Project Manager at Atwell and Chairman of the Government Affairs Committee for the Maryland Society of Surveyors, is working on a Reasonable Access bill to protect land surveyors from trespass.
By: William Bower, Senior Project Manager
The science of boundary surveying retraces legal property descriptions as points and lines on the surface of the earth, and accurately locates and maps physical features of properties. Accurate boundary surveys protect the public by clearly delineating and marking legal boundaries on the property for the owners to observe and plan how to use the land. Where one property stops and another one starts is not always obvious, and in some states, crossing an unmarked property boundary can get a land surveyor in trouble with the law where any unauthorized entry onto the lands of another constitutes trespass.
Currently, 31 states either allow surveyors the right of entry, or exempt them from trespass when engaged in land surveying activities. An additional 13 states allow surveyors to enter lands under certain circumstances. Maryland is one of those 13 states, and the current Maryland statute only exempts surveyors who are employees of the state.
The importance of the Reasonable Access bill
The 2024 session of the Maryland General Assembly started on January 10, 2024. As the Chairman of the Maryland Society of Surveyors’ Government Affairs Committee, I will be leading the effort, once again, to have surveyors who are actively engaged in surveying activities legally exempted from civil and criminal trespass. We call it our Reasonable Access bill.
Development regulations require the precise, authoritative location of property boundaries, the features of the land, and improvements thereupon. When land surveyors review boundary evidence, they not only look at the boundary monumentation of the subject property, but must also locate and review the boundary evidence of adjacent properties. The recovery of this evidence constitutes trespass. Every trespass to real property is considered to result in an offense, for which the wronged party is entitled to at least nominal restitution. Therefore, land surveyors are in a very precarious position when it comes to simply performing their jobs to obtain accurate locations of the physical position of real property boundaries.
In Maryland, and especially in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we have many sensitive environmental features, such as tidal waters; tidal and non-tidal wetlands; streams; steep slopes; highly erodible soils; and rare, threatened, and endangered species of flora and fauna. These environmental features can have buffers of 100 feet or more. The accurate location of these environmental features is required by development regulations, whether onsite or offsite. Similarly, many urban areas have regulations requiring development conformity through the application of average setbacks. These types of regulations require the surveyor to take measurements on not only adjacent properties, but sometimes all the structures on a block.
Closing the loophole in Maryland
While researching the need for this legislation, I discussed the intentions of the Maryland Society of Surveyors and interviewed many surveyors at local chapter meetings. While I did not find that surveyors were regularly being taken to court for trespassing, I did discover a disturbing trend; minority surveyors were being threatened with trespass at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. If we can take away this threat, it will allow surveyors to safely perform their duties to protect the public through accurate and authoritative locations of real property boundaries and land features.
In the bill, surveyors are still liable for any damage to real property they cause, and property owners are not liable if a surveyor is injured on their property. In the 2023 General Assembly session, the bill passed through the Senate with unanimous approval; however, we ran out of time and the bill was never voted on in the House of Delegates. In November 2023, I met with the bill’s sponsor in the State Senate. We have filed the bill early and have found a sponsor in the House, so it can be filed simultaneously in both legislative bodies, thereby reducing the time to approval. We feel this will give us the best chance of success for a commonsense piece of legislation.
Without the protection of a statute exempting land surveyors from civil and criminal trespass, it is easy to see that land surveyors are at risk every day simply for doing their jobs. This lack of protection is widely recognized, as 88% of states currently have some form of protection for land surveyors. In Maryland, and the other remaining states, it’s time for this loophole to be closed.