Esslie-Frenia Law June 2023 Leaderboard

Is learning lines a lost art?


No fresh faces join ranks of local surveyors

WHY IS IT that young people are not becoming land surveyors in Columbia County, even though the profession is growing nationwide and across the country surveyors average $60,000-$80,000 a year in income?

Land surveying dates to at least the ancient Egyptians (surveyors were called “rope stretchers”), and the importance of surveying has been recognized by politicians and warriors alike. William the Conqueror commissioned a survey of all of England in 1086 (the Domesday Book); George Washington became a land surveyor at 15 or 16; Napoleon was known to require very precise and detailed maps; and Abraham Lincoln was a deputy county surveyor in Illinois. Land surveying was one of the first professions to be licensed in the country.

Today, few young people are entering the profession in Columbia County, even as changes in technology are making the work less physically demanding. As Jim Tomaso of Hudson puts it, “When I was coming into the profession some 20 years ago, there were 5 others who came in at about the same time.” Today, 38-year old Phil Massaro Jr. is the youngest of Columbia County’s 16 licensed surveyors.

While local surveyors can describe the changes in the profession, none is sure of the reasons why the profession is attracting fewer young men and women. Mr. Tomaso points to the increasing complexity of the work. Every town in the county (except Greenport) has now adopted zoning laws. A surveyor must be familiar with all the laws in order to guide the client through the planning process: for example, when will a “ridge line” or “steep slope” protection apply? Is an area federally or state-protected wetland? Indeed, surveyors increasingly work as part of larger, multi-disciplinary teams or firms, as town regulations often require the submission of topographic, geological, biological and engineering data for development or construction plans.

Licensure is also difficult to achieve. To qualify to sit for the licensing exam, a candidate has to have eight years of credits–two or four of which may be a two-year associate’s degree or four-year bachelor’s degree in engineering or surveying and the balance of which is earned through interning with a licensed surveyor.

Also, the job requires an unusual assortment of skills. “Part lumberjack, part archeologist and part mathematician” – that’s the way Mr. Massaro describes the work. He should know. He spent his “cavity-prone years,” starting at age 11, working with his surveyor-father, Phil Massaro Sr., just as Phil Sr. had worked together with his father (also, Phil), years before.

As for the outdoorsman, as Hudson’s Dan Russell puts it, you work outside as well as inside, all year round, in the coldest of winters and hottest of summers, as you walk and mark the property in question. Occasionally, the surveyor will run into an angry neighbor who is less than happy to see a guy (sometimes carrying a machete to cut through brambles or to pound in stakes) walking along his property line, and sometimes neighbors fear that a survey will imperil their property.

Nevertheless, changes in tools have made the outdoor work less taxing and more precise. Up until the early 1980s, surveyors carried a 300-foot, quarter-inch steel tape to gauge distances. The tape was replaced by a computerized data collector that the surveyor points at the “rod man,” whose rod is fitted with a prism; distance is measured by the amount of time it takes for light shot by a laser to bounce back from the prism. Recently, one man in the surveying team has been replaced on many jobs, for those who can afford the $50,000 price, by a short yellow robotic device that stands on a tripod and shoots light to the prism without human intervention. The robot talks too, warning, for example, that the “target is lost.”

GPS has not yet supplanted on-the-ground work in our area, according to Dan Russell because GPS cannot “see” under tree cover. But surveyors will sometimes use GPS or Google Earth to plan a job, seeing, for instance, what obstacles there may be.

Then, there is the archeologist. Old surveys often relied on “monuments” or “witnesses,” like “the old cherry tree” or “the stone wall.”  If you’re lucky, the stone wall is still there, and today’s surveyor will pound in a rod to mark the spot in a new survey.  But, when the old cherry tree has long since disintegrated, the surveyor starts to do research, reading older surveys and deeds to try to reconstruct the scene. Phil Massaro tells two stories to make the point.

When he was 12 and surveying with his father, they undertook to survey a farm. According to the last survey, done in the 1870s, one corner of the property was designated by a “large stone marked ‘A’.” Needless to say, the Massaros did not find the stone when they walked the perimeter; but later, when driving in a pin they hit rock and uncovered a “coffee table sized stone with an “A” chiseled in it.

More recently, he was surveying in Stuyvesant. The last survey of the property had been done in 1860, and it spoke in terms of “chains” (a measure of distance) and fence lines. Mr. Massaro could not find any of the monuments described in the survey. He spent eight days in the County Clerk’s Office tracing the property description from deed to deed. In the end, he found a typo in one deed–an “E” (East) and been written where “W” (West) belonged, and the error had been repeated in later deeds. Once the error was recognized, monuments appeared where they should be and the survey was completed.

Last on Mr. Massaro’s list, there is the mathematician, who draws the plans and calculates and plots the angles and distances. The surveyor works with trigonometry and geometry, although the advent of computer assisted design (CAD) programs and Electronic Distance Measuring have relieved the surveyor of hand-drafting maps and having to transpose data by hand from his field notes onto the map, a hugely detailed task for large areas and subdivisions.

To these skills might be added several other: an explorer’s curiosity since, as Dan Russell puts it, “you see every corner of the county”; sufficient comfort with legalese to understand each town’s zoning laws; and diplomacy, to facilitate the dialogue among landowner, architect, engineer and Planning Board and avoid being caught in the cross-fire of the occasional “sue happy” neighbors with a boundary dispute.

Land surveys are necessary to the purchase, subdivision, development and conservation of land and so will always be in demand. But from the available records, young people in Columbia County don’t seem to have the job in their sights. 

Related Posts