The Other Side of the Counter: “The Land Surveyor’s Role as a Private Land Planner”

The Land Surveyor’s Role as a Private Land Planner

Part of the Guest Column Series titled “The Other Side of the Counter – Thoughts on Land Use Planning from a California Land Surveyor,” by Landon Blake, Principal/Senior Land Surveyor with Redifined Horizons.



Have you seen that person standing on the public side of the counter at the local land use planning department? You know the one. The person in work boots and a button up shirt, quite possible with bright pink paint on his fingers. That person is probably a land surveyor.

What is a land surveyor? Why are land surveyors so frequently on the other side of the counter? What is the land surveyors role as a private land planner in California? How does the land surveyor get chosen for this job?

This article will answer all those questions.


What is a Land Surveyor?

A land surveyor is an expert at making measurements on the Earth’s surface. Land surveyors have other responsibilities. But most of these grow out of their ability to measure with accuracy. In California, land surveyors are the only professionals licensed to locate parcel boundaries. They are also licensed to perform topographic and construction layout surveys. (They share the legal right to perform topographic surveys and construction layout with civil engineers.)

A state licensing board regulates and disciplines licensed land surveyors. To become licensed in California a surveyor must show at least 6 years of welL-rounded surveying experience. They must also past multiple exams. Each exam is between 6 to 8 hours long.


Why Is A Land Surveyor On The Other Side Of The Counter?

In my work as a land surveyor I’m often on the public side of the land use planning department counter. (Or on the phone with a public land planner, or exchanging e-mails with a public land planner.) Why is this? What parts of my job as a land surveyor require me to talk to a land planner at a government agency?

For most land surveyors, there are 3 reasons to visit the other side of your counter:

1) We’re researching the land use regulations (primarily zoning). This is usually done as part of commercial real estate due diligence, most frequently as part of an ALTA (land title survey).

2) We’re working on a land subdivision or lot-line-adjustment. Those processes almost always start with the land use planning department.

3) We’re working on other land development activities for a client. For example: Helping the client get approval for a conditional use permit.


How Does The Land Surveyor Get Chosen For This Job?

Most land surveyors don’t set out to be land planners. Most don’t like dealing with land regulation. In fact, many surveyors prefer to be outside with the rocks and the trees, not inside dealing with people. That’s part of our personalities. (There are exceptions – of course.) How, then, do we end up getting chosen to handle the land planning aspects of the project we work on?

It is often a role we fall into, or become absorbed in over the course of our careers. It is not usually a conscious choice. Land surveyors become responsible for the land planning aspects of many projects for the following reasons:

1) We are often the lead on small land development projects. In this role we help our client (usually the land owner) run the project and contract with other professionals.

2) On small and simple projects (like a lot-line-adjustment to fix a building encroachment) we may be the only professional involved.

3) Clients need a boundary and topographic survey before design work can start on most projects. As a result, land surveyors are often the first professionals to hear about a project. We get engaged with the client early – and often end up making that trip down to the planning department. In this way, we are often the connection in time between the client and the hiring of the full design team.

4) On large projects with a multi-disciplinary team, land use planning matters are often delegated to the land surveyor. Other professionals assume we are better and “speaking planner”.

5) We are the professionals most experienced with the subdivision regulations and rules. There is often interplay between the land use regulations for a project and the subdivision regulations.

6) The interpretation of many land use regulations require our ability to measure accurately. (For example: The mapping of building setbacks.)


Why Isn’t the Lawyer, Architect or Civil Engineer At Your Counter?

Why do you have to talk to the land surveyor that looks like he just crawled out of a muddy pick-up truck? Why aren’t you talking to someone that feels at home in the indoors – a lawyer, architect or civil engineer?

On a big project – that might be the case. But often, as a land planner in public service – your stuck with the guy or gal in the muddy boots. Why is this?

1) The client may not have hired other professionals for the project (yet). Remember: The land surveyors are often first on the scene.

2) Other professionals often lack the interest in land use regulation. Architects want to build buildings and civil engineers want to design site drainage. Lawyers don’t like to get involved unless people are already screaming at each other.

3) Land use planning is often outside the area of focus for other professionals. For example: Lawyers may understand the best mechanics to defeat a CEQA challenge or how to argue that a condition of approval for a subdivision violates the nexus requirement, but they often lack the technical expertise needed to understand detailed land use regulations. Through the nature of their other work – land surveyors roll around in the land use regulations other professions avoid.

4) Land surveyors often provide good value for the client’s money. On many projects, the clients have their land attorneys delegate the technical work related to land use regulatory approvals to our team.

Now you know who the person in muddy boots is on the other side of your counter. It is a land surveyor. Nice to meet you! I hope we will enjoy working together on my next project.


The Other Side Of The Counter – Thoughts On Land Use Planning From A California Land Surveyor
In “The Other Side Of The Counter,” Landon shares thoughts, opinions, and advice for land use professionals from the perspective of a licensed land surveyor in private practice – a professional often on the “other side” of the land use planning counter. His goal for the articles in the column is to increase understanding between public land planners and land surveyors in private practice.  Landon can be found on LinkedIn, online, or reached via email.