Rhode Island Agencies

Title Tips - February 2015


SURVEYS:  Just as the enactment of the Statute of Frauds and the Recording Statutes initiated the practice of conveyancing among lawyers, so also they necessitated the development of the parallel profession of surveying. Basically, linear measurement and measurement of angles is a main function of surveying, and the tools used by surveyors have left their mark in the land dimensions found in the land records.

Linear measurement was done by means of a tool called a "chain," which is of English origin. The system of measurement primarily used in American deeds is based on the English chain, even though England, and many  other countries, use the metric system. There were chains of many lengths, but the one primarily used was the "English chain" or "surveyor's chain" of 22 yards or 66 feet in length. One acre (43,650 square feet) was 10 square chains. One rod was 1/4 of a chain or 16 1/2 feet (5 1/2 yards). Ten Rod Road in North Kingstown was laid out 165 feet wide, supposedly to accommodate flocks of sheep. A land mile (5,280 feet) was 80 chains. A square mile consisted of 640 acres.

The so-called "surveyor's chain" or "English chain" was divided into 100 links, each link being 7.92 inches long. Later, the "engineer's chain," which also had 100 links, was used. In the "engineer's chain," each link was one foot long. Consequently, there are 52.8 engineer chains in the statute mile. Since the early part of the twentieth century, there has been a trend by surveyors to state distances in surveys in feet. This trend brought the engineer's chain into popular use. Later the steel tape measure and the electronic transit replaced the chain.

Beside linear measurement, surveyors also needed to precisely measure the angles formed by the intersecting  boundaries of a given parcel. Early surveyors relied upon the compass transit to determine the horizontal direction of a line with reference to the direction of a magnetic needle. The needle would always point to the magnetic meridian or magnetic north. The angle between the magnetic meridian and the property line to be determined was read on a graduated circle. The graduated circle was divided into four quadrants: N.E., S.E., S.W., or N.W. The bearings were counted from 0 degrees to 90 degrees, the 0 degrees being either at the N or S point and the 90 degrees either at the E or W point. If, for instance, a line made an angle of 20 degrees with the magnetic meridian and was in the southeast quadrant, its bearing was written S 20 degrees E. The center of the compass was placed over every corner of the property and each respective angle was read. The bearing was always counted from the N and S point toward the E and W points.

Magnetic north, however, is constantly moving and is currently located in Northern Canada. The exact location is always changing. The amount of difference between the magnetic north shown on the compass transit and true geographic north is called "declination." It increases at about 3 degrees per year. For example, in New England the compass declination is 15 degrees West of true North. Thus an old survey made with a transit compass in the 1700's, when declination was 7 degrees W, would need to be rotated counterclockwise to be accurate in 2014. Likewise, colonial deed descriptions need to be adjusted for declination if they are to be reproduced on the ground today. This can be important in a controversy involving the location of a rural boundary. One must know the year the original bearings were taken and obtain the compass declination for that year. Even with this information, surveyors will rely heavily upon the permanent monuments they find in the field to reconcile these ancient boundaries.

When a surveyor testifies in court, he or she does so as an expert witness. The issue of what are the boundaries of a given parcel is a question of law to be determined by a judge. The determination is a question of fact. DiMaio V. Ranaldi, 49 R.I. 204.

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