Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

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Typically children don’t look forward to going to the dentist but I did for one reason, Highlights Magazine. To be more specific, Highlights Magazine had a section where they cleverly hid common everyday items into a drawing.

I loved, and still do love, hidden picture games; So why is it that I hate Texas’ land survey system so much? One would think that the endless Where’s Waldo game we as landmen get to play every time our work lands us in a new abstract would keep me entertained for weeks on end but no, I want the subject area circled for me!

Luckily, I first cut my teeth with Abstracts/Metes and Bounds and I’m glad I did. Since I was thrown in the deep end (running title on logging companies in East Texas) and later moved to a state that used PLSS and quarter calls (LA), the shock in the difference between the two systems was in my favor. I can only imagine the whiplash when done in the other direction.

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

As any seasoned landman, I have had my taste of quite a few different land grid schematics over the years and have formed pretty strong opinions of each. My exposure and opinions have only grown stronger now that I manage several Land products for Drillinginfo making me responsible for capturing, mapping and designing software for data from pretty much every play in the country.

Each land grid has its pros and cons and I’d like to go over a few with you today to see how our notes compare.

Abstract/Metes and Bounds – Central, South & East Texas

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

After my introduction, you may be surprised to hear that I have any pros to list with this system but I do.

After the task of finding your abstract out of the 1,000+ others positioned randomly somewhere in the county and then locating the 18” black jack in the middle of a field 2 varas N 44’ E from a 16” Hickory tree (in 1910), metes and bounds does have some strong attributes.

You can slice and dice, zig and zag your property into any shape you desire. So when it comes to getting a precise polygon, there are only few systems better than metes and bounds.

But, back to the cons.

Texas’ first surveys date back to when it wasn’t part of the United States. While surrounding neighbors were being defined by a Jeffersonian system, Texas was under Spanish and later Mexican Rule. Much of the early land grid was based on water supplies, which doesn’t always make for straight lines.

As I alluded to above, when the original surveys were created and abstract numbers assigned there was no standardized system in place with regards to size, shape or numerical location.

We are now left with the task of locating abstracts by clumsily sifting through a county abstract map or having to turn to a computer for help – which are not always readily available in a courthouse. The next step of plotting a metes and bounds description, is locating your point of beginning which are often outdated Landmarks/waypoints that are not easily found on a standard map.

Even after our point of beginning is found and we are ready to forge ahead with creating our polygon, we are left with two less than stellar options. One Requires manual mapping while the other, manual entry into clunky software program and pray there is no curve involved.

Finally, I’d liked to bring up the use of reference documents which can often be considered either a pro or a con.

The number one reason a legal document is voided is an improper property description. With its complex directions and distances, it is very easy for a person creating the document to make a mistake when transcribing the metes and bounds legal description.

For this reason, Texas is the only state that allows for the use of a reference document in lieu of a traditional legal description.

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

To the person who no longer has to write out long metes and bound descriptions, the use of reference documents is a blessing. Not only for saving them time, but also relieving the stress of possibly voiding an important instrument by a simple typo.

The con, especially for people like me, is designing software around the constraints of this system. For example, when building online courthouses, we can no longer collect documents for a limited range of time, say 1980 – current.

A customer who comes across a deed or lease filed days ago may require a reference document from 1910 in order to plot their tract (see above). This puts companies in a position of having to obtain a fairly in depth warehouse of documents even if only wanting to research current filings.

PLSS – Central and Western US

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

Probably the most favored land grid system for its ease of use is the PLSS (Public Land Survey System), known by a couple of other names: STR (Section Township Range) & Jeffersonian (as in Thomas). In this system, two lines dissect a state; a baseline from east to west and a meridian north and south.

Their subsequent lines gain in number value as they move further away in their respective directions. In the end, we are left with a grid system. By naming the Township (N or S) value along with the Range (E or W), the intersecting cross area is then divided into sections (typically 36 but can be greater).

By stating a Section Township and Range (Ex. Section 10 Township 5N Range 32W), one can quickly identify the location of a property inside a state within one square mile (640 acres). Once the section is located, a quarter call (QQ) is usually given to describe what area of the section the subject property is found in (ex. NE ¼; S ½; SW/4 of NW/4).

If more detail is needed, metes and bounds can be used from this point forward. This system is fast, clean and most important for me, we can program a computer to map these tracts and build relational software around.

In the land classes I teach, one thing I do when going over land grids and the power they have; is to ask my students to observe the scoring of the earth the next time they fly across state lines or hop on Google earth. Look at Texas and then Oklahoma.

What you will see is that land is bought and sold in OK in square blocks whereas in TX, they take on a more random polygon characteristic.

That’s because people tend to sell based on the way they describe property. Even the roads are built accordingly (see below).

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

Hybrid – West, TX

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

In 1854, 8 years after Texas became a part of the Union, legislatures agreed that for every mile of railroad constructed, they would repay the Railroad Company with 16 sections equaling 10,240 acres. By 1882, over 32,000,000 acres had been issued through this agreement.

As the Railroad companies began grabbing up and surveying land in West TX, they brought with them the land grid surveying systems that they were used to. When these new systems merged with the Abstract based system common to the rest of TX, the result is what I call the West TX Hybrid System.

Nowhere in the country are land grids more confusing, or interesting for that matter, than in West TX.

One characteristic that I find intriguing from the varying land grid systems used throughout the United States is how many terms are shared between them and how they can have completely different meanings. I can understand ambiguity with terms in different industries but within the same industry…? A little odd to me and the frequency in which it happens, makes it even more of an oddity.

This lends itself to confusion when a landman moves into a new area or, for me, when my team is trying to build user friendly software to be used nationwide. For example, a “Township” in a PLSS land grid denotes the area between two vertical lines off the meridian.

Move up to the northeast and the term township is used to denote a municipality that resembles an East Texas abstract.

You don’t even have to leave a particular state to see this. In East Texas a “Block” is typically used to describe a small portion of land within a city development and is often divided up into lots within said block (e.g. A city block).

Make a trip over to the plains of West TX and not only will you find that “Block” is used in the same manner as East TX but that it is also used in two additional ways. You can even find examples of all three variations within the same county!

Glasscock County is a prime example of this. In one instance of the two new uses, “Block” takes the place of “Range” in a hybrid form of PLSS that is titled to a 45° angle; Section Township Block (with no E or W direction associated; I guess they’re all West out there).

At the Northeast corner of the county “Block” is also used to describe a large portion of land that is subdivided by sections that are now right side up. I also like to use Glasscock when describing this hybrid system because you can truly see the two land grid systems meeting (see above).

Another odd characteristic that I’ve come across in West TX is two tracts of land can have the exact same property description with only the name of the survey changing. Next time you get bored at night, hop on TX GLO and take their interactive map viewer for a spin over to Sterling County. There you will find two tracts of land described as Section 21 Block 2. One is in the H&TC RR Co Survey while the other is in the T&P RR Co Survey (see below). We kind find examples like this all over West, TX. Sloppy, at best.

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

The final attribute that makes West TX’s hybrid system intriguing, is that property descriptions make no reference to an Abstract number yet they do have them. A large portion of land grid based customer support issues I come across are due to this.

I lied, one more fun fact. The unit of measurement used most often in Texas land descriptions is the vara. It’s a Spanish word whose origin can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. If you ask most landmen they will tell you, without hesitation, that a vara is 33.3333 inches. But prior to colonization, the vara was not as defined as it was after 1854. This is why it is actually longer in East TX (36 inches) than in West TX. Small difference by comparison but when you are mapping large tracts of land, this can result in large errors. So take this little gem and keep in the back of your mind the next time you whip out your scaled ruler and begin using the vara to plot your tract.

Marcellus – NE USA

When it comes to unique land grid systems, the Marcellus takes the cake. I have an endless litany of oddities I have found in this region but I will pick a couple to highlight.

When designing the software for capturing legal descriptions in the Marcellus, the list of possible fields was endless and the description itself could contain one or any number combination of them (Lot, block, section, township, range, quarter township, borough, tract, fraction, allotment, division, parcel, subdivision, etc.) Trying to map centroids for all these possible combinations was a logistical nightmare for my team.

Another attribute that has never sat right with me is that they actually allow for the use of a Parcel ID # as a legal description!

When a parcel is partitioned into smaller tracts, each of the newly created tracts is given a new parcel ID #. Without having access to a parcel map from every year prior, old parcel ID #s can no longer be located.

Finally, I’m still not sure I agree with the logic of describing a property by using the names of land owners to the North, South, East and West of the subject property. Again, much like parcel ID #s, when ownership changes it makes that reference point no longer a viable point of reference.

For these reasons, I really have to tip my hat to my Leasing Team for capturing this data set and to our GIS Department that has taken up the challenge to begin mapping leases in areas of the Marcellus.

Land Grids. The Good, the Bad and the North 40

I just touched on a few of the land grid systems in the United States and cherry picked a handful of their unique attributes but I assure you there are many more worthy of discussion.

As my team and I build DI’s newest product (DI A&D), we are once again reminded of the hurdles one faces when trying bring order to a system that is fraught with anything but. Figuring out how to capture all of these attributes, yet keeping the user interface intuitive for customers to navigate, presents quit a challenge for us.

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Silas Martin

Silas is the Director, Data Acquisition and Enhancement at Drillinginfo. He spent the better part of a decade in the courthouses and title offices of East Texas and has field experience in: TX, LA, AR, MS, OK, KS, PA, OH, WV, CO, WY, UT, CA, ND, MT, MI, and NM.