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Every Profession has terms specific to the profession. Not only Land Surveying, but also code authorities have specific definitions assigned to terms. On this page we have tried to give you commonly used definitions used in land surveying. We have also included some definitions used by code authorities. This page is not intended as a technical reference but rather as an informational page in lay terms to help the non-professional understand a little bit about land surveying.

Some basic land surveying terms and definitions:

Public Land Survey System (PLSS): The PLSS is a surveying system that uses a rectangular grid system to determine property lines. This grid system is made of baselines and principal meridians that run parallel to each other on the ground. These baselines and meridian lines function as guidelines in determining the exact location of a parcel.

Willamette Meridian, or W.M.: Established in 1851, the Willamette Meridian is a reference line in Oregon and Washington, which extends north and south from the east-west Oregon Base Line. The intersection point of these two lines is commonly called the Willamette Stone, located about 4 miles west of downtown Portland in Multnomah County, Oregon. The Willamette Meridian and Oregon Base Line were established as reference lines for the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) in Oregon and Washington. In general, land surveying, property lines, and land descriptions in Oregon and Washington are based on the PLSS.

Except for two small portions of land near Blaine and Birch Bay, the Willamette Meridian is off of the coast of Whatcom County, Washington. It is for this reason that the Guide Meridian was established. The Guide Meridian is located between Range 2 East and Range 3 East, from the boundary between Skagit and Whatcom Counties, north to the Canadian border. This line is 12 miles east of and parallel to the Willamette Meridian.

Township and Range: A grid composed of square areas six (6) miles on a side, containing thirty-six (36) sections. The areas in this grid are addressed as a combination of the township and range numbers. In Washington and Oregon, Townships are addressed as the number of six-mile townships North (or South) of the zero point of the Willamette Meridian (near Portland, Oregon). Ranges are addressed as the number of six-mile ranges East or West of the Willamette Meridian. The township and range numbers for areas in this grid are assigned by the lines more distant from the W.M.. So Township 1 North, Range 1 East is all that area between the Willamette Stone and the line parallel to and six miles East of the Meridian, and the line perpendicular to the Meridian and 6 miles North of the Willamette Stone.

Bellingham, Washington lies in portions of four (4) townships. Township 38 North, Range 2 East is one of the northern townships. This means that the point of intersection of these two lines (Township 38 North and Range 2 East) is 234 miles North of the zero point of the Willamette Meridian (38 times 6 miles) and 12 miles East of the Willamette Meridian (2 times 6 miles).

Township 38 North, Range 2 East begins 226 miles North and ends 234 miles North of the zero point of the Willamette Meridian, and begins 6 miles East and ends 12 miles East of the Willamette Meridian.

Section: Theoretically, a section is an area of land one mile long and wide. There are thirty-six (36) sections in a Township. One section is also 640 acres. It should be noted that the base surveying for the Northwest was done between 1850 and 1920. During those times most of the land was not cleared and the measuring instrument was the Gunter's chain.

Today, the primary land surveying markers which determine the present location and size of parcels are the original survey markers set in the late 1800's through the early 1900's. Because of the method of measurement and other factors, many errors were generated from "theoretically perfect" section marker settings. Due to these errors, some sections are larger and some sections smaller than one square mile. Although today's land surveying equipment is extremely accurate, the original section markers legally determine the basis of property boundaries.

Acre: An area one Gunter's Chain by 10 Gunter's Chains. It is also exactly 43,560 square feet in area. A square acre is 208.7 feet by 208.7 feet.

Gunter's Chain: A historic land surveying measurement. It is much like the 10 yard long chain used in football games to determine a first down. A Gunter's Chain consists of 100 links and each link is 0.6 feet long. Therefore a Gunter's Chain is sixty six (66) feet.

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Mile: A length of eighty (80) Gunter's Chains or 5,280 feet.

Benchmark: A survey mark made on a monument having a known location and elevation, serving as a reference point for surveying.

Monument: A permanently placed survey marker such as a stone shaft sunk into the ground.

Corner: The beginning or ending point of any survey line-the property does not have to be square to have corners.

Point of Beginning: The starting point of a survey.

Call: Any feature, landmark, or measurement called out in a survey. For example, "two white oaks next to the creek" is a call.

Landmark: A survey mark made on a "permanent" feature of the land such as a tree, pile of stones, etc.

Declination: The difference between magnetic north and geographic (true) north. Surveyors used a compass to determine the direction of survey lines. Compasses point to magnetic north, rather than true north. This declination error is measured in degrees, and can range from a few degrees to ten degrees or more. Surveyors may have been instructed to correct their surveys by a particular declination value. The value of declination at any point on the earth is constantly changing because the location of magnetic north is drifting.

Conditional Line: An agreed-to line between neighbors that has not been surveyed, or which has been surveyed but not granted.

Easement: Use of a portion of property for some stated purpose without compensation. Easements are not estates in that they do not convey ownership, but rather the use of the property in so far as needed for a stated purpose.

Cadastral Map: Land ownership map, generally used for tax purposes.

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Some Basic Real Estate Terms and Definitions:

Deed: A document giving the holder of a land title property ownership. More generally, any document sealing an agreement, contract, etc. Common types of deeds include: Bargain and Sale, Quitclaim and Warranty.

Deed of Trust: A transfer of property to someone to be held in trust for another. More specifically, however, deeds of trust are used in a number of states instead of a mortgage to secure a loan. The deed of trust names the trustees in whom the title is placed as security against failure to meet the terms of the loan.

Quit Claim Deed: A common type of deed in which the seller relinquishes claim to whatever rights were held on the property, but does not guarantee that the property is actually free of claims by others.

Warranty Deed: A deed in which the seller warrants having a valid title and that the property is clear of any liens.

Grant: Transfer of title from the government to the first titleholder of a piece of property. this term is generally used by states and the federal government.

Grantee: The person receiving a grant, or buying property.

Grantor: The person issuing the grant, or selling property.

Trust: Confidence placed in someone by giving them property to be held or used for another's benefit. The property is held in trust.

Trustee: An individual to whom another's property is entrusted.

Property: Any kind of thing which has value and which one can exercise the rights of ownership upon, including possession, use, and disposal.

Real Property: Land.

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The following are some code definitions of terms used in land surveying:

Whatcom County Title 20 Zoning Code

Whatcom County Title 21 Zoning Code Return to top

Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan:
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