Last week, Maryland surveyor Chas Langelan showed up at a 61-by-117-foot construction site in Foggy Bottom and promptly got lost: The survey points shown on the detailed city maps of the lot did not exist. Finding the property’s boundaries, under better circumstances the work of an afternoon, became a three-day, $8,000 enterprise. “I thought [the owners] might not sign the contract,” Langelan recalls. “That’s an awful lot of money to pay to stake out a few property corners.” He finds that he’s having to charge those rates more and more as new construction destroys the markers that once defined the boundaries of every city property.
For well over a century, D.C. surveyors have marked the District’s dividing lines with hundreds of thousands of coppers, nickel-sized pegs that corrode green with exposure. They are precise records of D.C.’s spatial relationships, marking the hundreds of thousands of unique parcels of land that constitute the District with an accuracy that can be measured in hundredths of a foot. They are, admittedly, not very useful or relevant to anyone but land surveyors, and they are also rapidly disappearing.
Nearly every sidewalk repaved, trench dug, and condo erected has taken its toll. Some infrastructure improvements do more harm than others: According to Langelan, the Americans With Disabilities Act—which required handicap ramps at all four corners of an intersection—caused much of the worst damage. “The most critical monuments were on these corners,” Langelan sighs. “And there go all the coppers with the rubble in the dump truck. Soon, there won’t be an intersection in Washington that still has its survey points.”
D.C. “was a very well-monumented city at one time,” Langelan says, and can afford to lose a few markers. But as high-rises have replaced whole blocks of row houses downtown, the boundaries of the 450,000 separate parcels of land in the District have blurred. “The city control is being lost at an astonishing rate, and it’s only being reset by private surveyors working for private development,” says Jim Whitehead, president of the DC Association of Land Surveyors. Members of the association replace some markers in the course of their duties, but they can’t keep pace with the rate at which the District sheds its skin.
Complicating the problem is the archaic surveying system under which D.C. was designed. There is no central point within the District from which every distance is measured: Each square of land is free-floating, its boundaries defined only by the survey points directly on top of it. If enough points on a single square are wiped out, the exact boundaries of the properties on it disappear.
“It becomes almost an exercise in metaphysics to put in a marker sometimes,” Langelan says. Out of every hundred coppers that appear on his maps, he usually finds only about 15, sometimes fewer. The shortage of data points makes surveying in the District more time-consuming than surveying elsewhere, he says—a circumstance reflected in the price. “Our typical fee to stake out somebody’s house in D.C. is around $1,500—that’s way the hell higher than in Maryland,” Langelan says. “Our customers just bite the bullet and pay it.” In comparison, on the rare District block still studded with coppers, Langelan says the job runs only a couple of hundred bucks.
Re-establishing the network of coppers isn’t an option: The field crews of D.C. surveyors who planted them no longer exist. According to Roland Dreist, the official surveyor of the District of Columbia, the city’s last field team disbanded in the ’90s as the District’s surveying business went private sector. The free market has plenty of advantages, Dreist believes, but roving bands of public servants altruistically planting coppers in D.C. sidewalks is not one of them.
Those crews disappeared along with four-fifths of the Surveyer’s Office staff. Many of the downsized positions were those of draftsmen or other trades outmoded by personal computers, but the department’s nine-person staff long ago lost the capacity to send surveyors out on the streets. “It’s unfortunate that we lost the field crews,” Dreist admits. Despite rules mandating that developers commission new surveys when they build, he says, the city’s land boom means that “on a daily basis, we’re losing control points.”
Some professionals, including Whitehead, would like to see the city contract private surveyors to create new survey points. More likely, D.C. will abandon the system that has drawn the District’s lines since Andrew Ellicott first surveyed the city in 1791. “It was an excellent system devised at the time; however, with the new technology that’s out there, there are far better methods,” Dreist says.
In coming years, the District will likely move to a GPS system, in which multiple orbiting satellites triangulate the position of points on the ground. The conversion would likely cost millions of dollars, however, and even with D.C.’s finances back in the black, surveying isn’t the most sellable of causes. In comparison with school repairs and patched potholes, says surveyor Ken West, “there’s not many people fighting for these sorts of things.” CP