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Recognizing Property Boundaries


A major responsibility of owning and using land is knowing where the boundaries to the property are located. For some uses, it is important to know exactly where the boundary line is to avoid damage or disturbance to your neighbor’s property, such as at time of timber harvest. Only a licensed land surveyor can establish a property boundary; however, if the owner has a good modern survey description they may be able to locate the property based on evidence and marking customs purposefully left behind by the land surveyor.

Each property should have some form of written description recorded at the courthouse in the county where the property is located. The condition of the description will depend greatly on the timeframe; older descriptions (prior to 1970) could have been created with less accurate equipment. This can affect the quality of the description and the ability to use it for guidance. The first step is to obtain the best description possible of the property boundaries. This information will include the line direction, distance of each line section, and a description of the monument or corner at each turn. One can use this information to assist them as they are searching for property lines. For the purpose of this article we are going to assume the owner has an accurate modern survey and the lines and corners have been marked by the surveyor.

When in the field, the first step is to locate a known corner or monument. The corner is the intersection of two lines where a change in direction occurs. Corners can be monumented with a variety of objects, including but not limited to, rocks, living trees, stumps, metal pipes, rebar, points in a road, old axels, or even a fork in a stream. This is why it is important to have that written description so you know what you are looking for at the next turn! Surveyors sometimes witness corners to make them easier to locate in the future or if the actual marker is accidentally removed. Witness trees can also be called “pointers” as the marks on the tree face or point to the corner. A common custom for a corner witness mark is 3 parallel lines about equal distance apart that face the corner on the ground. The witness tree is usually just a short distance from the actual corner, typically less than 5 feet away. These can be painted bars on the tree or axe hacks in the tree. Surveyors use hacks or chop marks in the tree because when the tree heals a scar will remain. This scar can remain visible for decades as evidence to the location of the boundary line. Paint is easier to see, however, it will fade and wear off over time so a combination of paint and hack marks can be the best method to ensure long term survival of the marks. If the actual corner is a standing and living tree, the description will usually name the species of the tree and it will be marked with the same 3 bar marking; however, the 3 bars will be on the side of the tree the line enters and then another 3 bars will be on the side and direction the new line exits the tree with the understanding the corner point is the center of the tree.

Property boundary line sections can be very long so marks along the line between corners are useful as well. These can be markings on trees along the line or post that are set in the line to mark the line location but not a turn. Tree markings in a line are called side line hacks or chops. These too can be painted bars or axe marks. Marks made along the line should face the actual line and be made in a way when observed to visualize the path of the boundary line. Common custom is for single bars to painted along the line approximately 3 inches wide and 1/3 of the diameter of the tree at breast height facing the actual line. Axe chops are usually 2 parallel chop markings facing the line location. If a tree located is directly in the path of the line, a vertical painted bar or 2 chops marks will be on the side of the tree the line enters and another marking will be on the opposite side of the tree where the line exits. This is called a fore and aft marking. Sections of line with really small trees or no trees may have post installed in the line to make the location more obvious. These markings can occur at different intervals along the line. When having a line marked, it is a good idea to ,at minimum, be able to easily see from marked object to marked object, the necessary distance will vary with terrain and density of vegetation in the area.

Helpful devices to have when locating marked boundary lines include a sighting compass that is a quadrant layout. This is how most survey descriptions read in degrees from north or south toward east or west. A distance measuring device like a hip chain can also be helpful to know when to stop and start looking for a corner. It is usually easiest to try to locate lines in the winter as well, when the foliage is not present. Do not attempt to mark an unmarked line (only a trained professional can do that), only maintain marks already in place.

Finding boundary lines that have good evidence can be enjoyable and helpful. Once located it is wise to maintain with paint every 6-8 years to keep the marks fresh and easy to locate. Marked boundaries are a first sign of good land management – they protect the owner from encroachment and trespass, limit the potential for an adverse possession claim, make timber sales easier to prepare, and reduce the potential for accidental timber theft when a neighbor harvests trees. American Forest Management can assist landowners with locating their already surveyed lines and with maintaining them with paint periodically as well.