There’s a metal stick in the hedgerow between my house and my neighbor’s that tells us how much yard we need to mow and how much of the sidewalk is our responsibility to clear each time it snows. For such an insignificant piece of metal, it holds a lot of power (see Figure 1).
Each time I see it, I’m transported back to U.W. Law Professor Gretchen Viney’s real estate class. It was there, while practicing reading legal descriptions of parcels, and drawing property lines with a protractor, that I became fascinated with the physical markers that bring property law into the real world.
Whether on vacation or just walking around town, I am delighted each time I come across a bit of property law in the wild. So here are a handful of examples of the types of finds that you can seek out on your next hike.
Figure 1: One powerful little stick in the ground that marks the corner of my property.
Benchmarking – Collecting (Locating) Land Survey Benchmarks
U.S. Geological Survey bench marks, placed by the Department of the Interior, helped measure and build America since 1879 . You can find these little metal disks all over the place.
The most interesting one I have come across is the one located in the Department of the Interior’s museum at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. (see Figure 2).
Compare this to the pictured U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey benchmark I found at the lighthouse in Jupiter, Florida (see Figure 3). Although they look similar, this mark was placed by government surveyors who are now associated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While one might say that having two agencies with overlapping missions was a waste of taxpayer dollars, the two competing surveys drove innovation in survey techniques with each agency trying to one-up the other. In the end, we all benefited because the survey work was a foundation for the development of GPS technology.
To start your adventure hunting for a benchmark, NOAA has a great mapping tool on its website.
Many benchmarks are also the sites of caches on the popular Geocaching app (see Figure 4).
Figure 2: This benchmark is located in the Department of the Interior’s museum at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Hunting the Quirky Property Law Marker
In addition to looking for benchmarks, I keep an eye out for other examples of property law in the wild.
You could spend a whole day in New York City checking out quirky property law attractions. There’s the spite house at 75 ½ Bedford Street, the Hess’ Triangle marker in Greenwich Village (“which has never been dedicated for public purposes”), and lots of signs and markers noting you are entering a privately-owned public space or POPS (see Figure 5, Figure 6, and Figure 7.
Another unique marker I have stumbled upon – literally – is this cement pillar at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. (see Figure 8). It is the Zero Milestone, intended to be the point all highway distances in the United States were officially measured from, like the golden milestone in ancient Rome. While that never happened, the initial road planning expedition that left from this spot was such an ordeal it inspired Eisenhower to make the interstate highway system a priority.
Figure 3: This benchmark is located at the base of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse in Jupiter, Florida.
Tangible Law that You Can Locate
So much of the law that impacts our daily lives is not physical. Or if it is physical, it is not something you would want to experience.
Property law is different. You can see it. You can touch it. You can impress and/or annoy your friends and family by pointing it out when you notice it.
Take a look next time you are in your own yard, or visiting a local or famous landmark, and see what you can find.
Figure 4: I’m still trying to figure out who placed this metal disk on the base of the Statue of Liberty. If anyone out there knows, please let me know!
Figure 5: New York City has many unique property law attractions, including this narrow house at 75 ½ Bedford Street that is only 9 feet, 6 inches wide.
Figure 6: The public is welcome to visit the plaza at 140 Broadway in New York City since it is a privately-owned public space (POPS), but the plaque makes it clear that the property owners want to reserve the right to exclude people in the future.
Figure 7: A small metal plaque marks a property line on a New York City sidewalk.
Figure 8: The Zero Milestone in Washington, D.C. is located right outside the White House on the Ellipse.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Nonresident Lawyers Blog. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Nonresident Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.