NO LOCAL REVIEW OF BOUNDARY SURVEY PLATS: SPEED OVER ACCURACY?

By: Andrew McRoberts, Editor. This was posted Monday, August 3rd, 2009

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One of Attorney General Bill Mims’ first official opinions stated that localities may not require the review and approval of “boundary survey plats and physical survey plats as a prerequisite for recordation.” http://www.oag.state.va.us/OPINIONS/2009opns/08-105-Bell.pdf

I agree, to a point. The Attorney General has accurately summarized the statutes from the subdivision article of Chapter 22, Title 15.2. None of those statutes allows a locality to mandate a review and approval if a plat is merely a boundary survey or physical survey, and not a subdivision of any kind.

Of course, the A.G. opinion is completely premised on the assumption that the plat is NOT a subdivision, a new lot or altered boundary in any way. What if the plat says it is a “boundary survey” and it is really the creation of a new lot? What if it says “plat of survey of two lots” but it in fact divides one lot into two? Could not a short review (not approval) process catch these at the front end?

Since the Attorney General’s opinion is premised on the fact that the plat is NOT a subdivision, can the Circuit Court Clerk not require some proof of the fact? The opinion cites a 1987 A.G. Opinion, which states that “generally” a clerk is not required to determine compliance with “any particular provision of law” and unhelpfully suggests that a clerk accept an oral assertion of compliance and make a written notation of that assertion on the plat. 1987-88 Op. Va. Att’y Gen, 208, 210.

As local government attorneys, we have seen the damage that an improperly-recorded plat can cause. Localities typically deny building permits or other approvals for improperly-divided lots, but this is a harsh result. Of ten the people hurt are well-meaning folks who rely on the surveyor, realtor or developer and bought the lot in good faith. I have had seen lot owners cry because they cannot build their dream home and their lot is next-to-worthless. Recordation of inaccurate parcel boundaries can harm the integrity of the land records, to the detriment of all.

On the other side, the surveyors want their plats recorded quickly. They complain that a review and approval process of a mere boundary survey is unnecessary and slows the process. There may well be localities that take a while to review plats. (In Goochland, such reviews would take less than a day, on average.) There must be a middle ground.

While I agree with the Attorney General’s reading of the law, I believe there should still be some room for common sense, either by the Circuit Court Clerk who could still ask for confirmation from the local planning office that the plat in fact is not a subdivision plat, or failing that, by the General Assembly which could amend the statute.

Choosing speed over accuracy cannot be the only way.

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