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3/14/2016 at 6:37:20 PM GMT
Posts: 24
Office of County Surveyor

          According to today’s Savannah Morning News, at the request of Bert Barrett, Jr., county surveyor of Chatham County, a bill has been introduced in the legislature to abolish the office of county surveyor in Chatham County.  It should have been done away with, statewide, more than a century ago when the headright land grant laws were repealed; or at least when the licensing law was enacted in the 1930s.  I admit I have not noticed any overt problems about the office in several years, but in the past it has been a horrendous problem for me, for professional surveyors, and for the public; and it could rear its ugly head again at any moment.

          There are some minor, immaterial inaccuracies about the history of the office in the newspaper article.  During the colonial period, Georgia had a surveyor general for the entire colony to supervise the surveying of public lands as part of the process for obtaining land grants from the colonial government.  At the end of the American Revolution, in 1783, the basic state headright land grant law was enacted that created the office of county surveyor in each county.  The purpose of the county surveyor was to survey land for obtaining land grants from the state.  When Georgia expanded beyond the Oconee River, a whole new land distribution system (the land lottery system) was devised, which didn’t require the day to day need for a county surveyor in the parts of the state where that system prevailed.  Thus, the office of county surveyor was basically functionless for two-thirds of the land area of the state.

          Georgia’s first code was drawn up and adopted in 1863.  By that date, most of the public domain in the headright area of the state had been granted, so that the office had little function even there.  But a need was felt to keep it to provide a means for getting ungranted lands surveyed when people sporadically applied for land grants in the headright area.  As a result, the law for the office of county surveyor became part of the Georgia code.  In an attempt to prop the office up and give it more dignity, some additional, makeshift functions for it were added in the code.  These provisions are as follows:


§ 551. It is his [the county surveyor’s] duty —

1. To punctually observe and carry into effect all such orders as he may receive from the Surveyor General, or other officer who may lawfully command him.

2. To admeasure and lay off dower, to partition lands, to make re-surveys, to give plats of all surveys, and to administer all oaths required by law in such cases.

3. To survey county lines and district lines, or other surveys, in which his county may be interested, whenever required by the Justices of the Inferior Court.

4. To execute all surveys required by the rule of any Court of competent jurisdiction.

5. To keep a well bound book in which shall be entered plats of all surveys made by him, with a minute of the names of the chain-bearers, when executed, by whose order and to whom plat delivered, if any, which book shall belong to his office, and be turned over to his successor, and, when full, shall be deposited in the office of the Clerk of the Inferior Court.


§556. When there is no County Surveyor any competent person, a citizen of the county, may perform his duties, when specifically required, if first sworn to do the same skillfully, faithfully, and impartially, to the best of his knowledge, or in default of such person the County Surveyor of any adjoining county may officiate.

§557. Persons performing such service are on the same footing as County Surveyors as to the special service rendered, and are personally liable as such Surveyors are officially.


          Another part of the code provided that the county surveyor was to preside over processionings.  Sections 556 and 557, above, are especially telling.  Even by 1863 many counties did not have a county surveyor because no one cared to hold the office.  So, rather than find a basis for having the office filled in every county, the code simply provided that in the absence of an office holder, any competent person could perform the jobs enumerated.  The processioning law specifically provided that if there was no county surveyor, any competent person could perform that job.  Most of the above provisions, with minor modifications, have been carried down to the present in the Georgia code.  As a matter of practice, whenever any of the above functions needed to be performed, any person the party felt competent to do the work, whether the county surveyor or not, was selected.  Dower and processioning have been abolished.

          In 1783 the headright system of land granting and the office of county surveyor had both been set up by the same act because they were integral to each other.  Beginning with the Georgia Code of 1863, the provisions for the two became entirely separate articles in that and later codes.  The headright provisions were repealed in their entirety in 1909, thus ending the need the office of county surveyor was created for.  Because the county surveyor received no automatic salary or remuneration from any public entity, no need was felt to repeal the separate provisions for it.  When licensing of surveyors was implemented in the 1930s, the county surveyors, most of whom probably could not meet the requirements for licensure, had enough political clout to have the office exempted from the licensing provisions and from supervision by the State Board.

          I’ve had several bad experiences of unlicensed county surveyors as our competitors who didn’t know how to do mathematics beyond simple arithmetic, who had no idea how to do courthouse research, and who used compasses to determine angles because they didn’t know how to use a transit or theodolite.  Some county surveyors, unlicensed and licensed, claiming to be “public officials,” have had their offices in the courthouses, provided for them at taxpayers’ expense, and the taxpayers paid their phone and utility bills.  Because of their title, the general public thinks the work performed by county surveyors, whether licensed or not, is superior to or “more official” than work performed by licensed surveyors who are not county surveyors.  As a result, in several experiences I’ve had, county surveyors, licensed and unlicensed, obtained practically all the surveying work in their counties.  In one case there was an unlicensed county surveyor in a county about fifty miles away from our office.  He did not confine his work to the county he was in, but routinely solicited and did surveying work over a wide range of counties.

          One of Bert Barrett’s predecessors, who was licensed, had his office in the courthouse, and the taxpayers paid his phone and utility bills.  He carefully placed the statement “County Surveyor of Chatham County” under his signature on each plat he turned out, which was very impressive to the public.  The other licensed surveyors in the area had a meeting with the county commissioners, explained to them the problem of a person conducting a private business out of a public facility, and asked the county commissioners to deny this person the use of county facilities.  The basic response of the county commissioners was they understood the problem, but the political consequences of taking such action were too great for them to take on.

          Because that failed, Joe Stuckey decided to run against this person for the office, with the sole purpose of getting him out of office so the county surveyor would not use public facilities.  Joe ran twice and actively campaigned, while the incumbent did nothing.  The interest of the public cannot be aroused in a county surveyor race so that when they vote, most  don’t know anything about the candidates.  As a result, most voted for the incumbent.  In each case, the incumbent received about 95% of the vote while Joe received about 5% of the vote.  The immediate problem was finally solved when the incumbent died after holding the office for 41 years.

          There is no provision, and there has never been any provision, in the law for county surveyors to have seals.  Until the surveyor licensing law was enacted in the 1930s requiring the use of seals by licensed surveyors, no county surveyor, to my knowledge, placed seals on their plats; and I have reviewed thousands of plats made by county surveyors all over the state before and after the 1930s.  After the licensing law was enacted, a number of unlicensed county surveyors adopted the remarkable practice of having seals.  The seals look just like those used by licensed surveyors, except in the place of “Registered Land Surveyor” they have “County Surveyor of (such and such) County.”  Of course the purpose of this is to make their plats look, to the lay public, like plats produced by licensed surveyors.  In other words, the purpose is to deceive.

          The office of county surveyor needs to be abolished statewide.  It should have been abolished in 1909 when the headright laws were repealed, or, at the latest, in the 1930s when the licensing law came into being.  Holders of political offices have considerable political clout.  It is difficult to get the legislature to abolish any political office, no matter how useless or frivolous it is.  Previous attempts to abolish the office of county surveyor have, accordingly, failed.


Farris Cadle

4/14/2016 at 9:12:06 PM GMT
Posts: 6
County Surveyor

We have abolished the position in my county of Jones - Max Davis

5/31/2016 at 6:37:07 PM GMT
Posts: 10
There was a bill a couple of years ago that abolished the Processioning Code out of Title 44, so there is no longer a lawful duty of the county surveyor. So, abolishing it makes perfect sense. I hate to see anything diminish surveying in any way, but this "office" could become a source of embarrassment to the profession in the future. There has been a law on the books for a long time that if the office was vacant, that the commissioner(s) could abolish the office by local ordinance.

6/14/2016 at 1:58:48 PM GMT
Posts: 24

          The notion that there are certain functions that only county surveyors can perform needs to be buried into oblivion because it is unfounded.  This has been discussed previously on this Message Board.  The office of county surveyor was created by the Georgia headright act of 1783.  That act was the basic act under which all headright land grants were issued by the state, and it was in effect until 1909.  By its terms it created the office of county surveyor for the purpose of getting lands surveyed for issuing grants.  It listed no other functions for the county surveyor.  In the succeeding years, a few additional functions for the county surveyor were tacked on by legislative acts.  These were codified in the Code of 1863.

          For each of the duties the Code of 1863 prescribed for county surveyors to perform, there was also a provision in that code and in later codes that if there was no county surveyor “any competent person” could perform the job.  After the licensing provisions were enacted, beginning in the 1930s, that law was amended to provide that if there was no county surveyor, any licensed surveyor could perform the enumerated functions of the county surveyor.  The present provision is in Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 36-7-13: "When there is no county surveyor, any person who is a citizen of this state and who holds a current and valid certificate of registration as a land surveyor issued by the State Board of Registration of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors may perform the duties of county surveyor, when specifically required or appointed to do so, if first sworn to do the same faithfully and impartially."

          Since the repeal of the headright land grant laws in 1909, there does not need to be a person with the title of "county surveyor" to act in any capacity; and as noted above, the county surveyor has practically no duties to perform under any circumstances.  In the Savannah Morning News article cited above, Bert Barrett is quoted as saying in his almost 30 years as Chatham County surveyor he had done only one job for the county, for which he charged $250.  He could have just as well performed that job without the title of “county surveyor.”  I worked for a licensed surveyor one time who was incidentally the county surveyor.  We NEVER received any requests to do work because of his position as county surveyor.  In the nearly 40 years experience I’ve had dealing with land issues, and in reviewing numerous courthouse records on the matter, it is obvious that when persons need a job performed that falls under the enumerated duties of the county surveyor, they simply pick whoever they feel is competent to do the job and without regard to whether the person they pick is the county surveyor--and this is perfectly legal.

          Incidentally, the Savannah Morning News article cited above stated that the proposed bill would abolish the office of county surveyor in Chatham County.  It did not really do that.  It changed the office to a position to be appointed by the county commissioners.  This has been done for a number of counties, including Jones County.  So the office just won't die.  Presumably, and hopefully, the county commissioners will not appoint anyone to fill the office.


Farris Cadle

Last edited Wednesday, June 15, 2016
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