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Land Description

The Assessors Parcel Number system is used to define land for tax purposes and gives useful information about the size and outline of a parcel of land. However, the legal description of a parcel uses two more complex written system based on measurements and boundaries.

The PLSS System

The Public Lands Survey System (PLSS) also called the Government Survey was originally used to divide public domain lands, defined as lands owned by the Federal government for the benefit of the citizens of the United States. The original public domain included the land ceded to the Federal Government by the thirteen original States, supplemented with acquisitions from native Indians and foreign powers.

The PLSS system uses a network of grid lines running north-south and east-west.  The north-south lines are called meridians. The east-west lines are called baselines. There are 37 meridians, and the country is further subdivided by north-south lines at 6 mile intervals each side of the meridians, and by east-west lines at 6 mile intervals each side of the baselines

This means that the country is a huge grid made up of 6-mile-square units called townships. Townships are further subdivided into 36 one-mile- square units called sections.

Sections in a township are numbered as shown here.


Figure 1. The sections in a township. Note that the sections are numbered from the top right, snaking down through the township.

Sections can be further subdivided into quarter sections, quarter-quarter sections, or irregular lots. Normally, a permanent monument, or marker, is placed at each section corner. Monuments are also placed at quarter-section corners and at other important points, such as the corners of government lots. Today permanent monuments are usually inscribed tablets set on iron rods or in concrete.

Because of the curvature of the earth, each township section is not exactly square, and there are correction lines to compensate for this. If you need to understand the intricacies of correction lines and their effect on section size, you should probably consult a surveyor!

The problem with the PLSS system is that on its own it is effective only for rectangular lots. If an owner of a lot decides to subdivide the lot in an irregular manner, a different method of description may be used in conjunction with the PLSS system.

Metes and Bounds

The second method of describing a lot is by metes and bounds. This refers to the way in which a surveyor defines the parcel's boundary. In the simplest terms it is rather like a set of descriptions on a treasure map, (walk ten paces west, then five paces north), except that the descriptions must arrive back at the starting point. 'Metes' refers to the measurement of each run of the boundary, defined by a distance and orientation. 'Bounds' refers to landmarks on the boundary, for example 'old oak tree' or 'large boulder'. In modern metes and bounds descriptions the terminology is largely restricted to metes, because physical landmarks may be moved or altered.

Typical metes and bounds language might read as follows.

A tract of land in the Northwest one-quarter of the Northwest one-quarter (N/W 1/4, NW 1/4) of Section 30, Township 1 South, Range 60 West of the 6th P.M., described as follows: Commencing from the Northwest corner of said Section 30; thence South 20 degrees 30 minutes East 140.60 feet to the Point of Beginning (POB); thence North 88 degrees 55 minutes East 200.00 feet; thence South 125.0 feet; thence South 88 degrees 55 minutes West 200.00 feet; thence North 125.00 feet to the POB, County of Adams, State of Colorado.

Although this very wordy description is confusing and almost impossible for the lay person to understand, note several things. First, the description starts off with a PLSS description of the closest plottable PLSS location. A line is drawn from that location to a corner of the lot, and the rest of the description is written in metes and bounds.

If you want to check the description there are a number of computer programs available that will do the job for you: you just need to laboriously enter all the data line by line. For example, the example above simplifies to

South 20 degrees 30 minutes East 140.60 feet

North 88 degrees 55 minutes East 200.00 feet

South 125.0 feet

thence South 88 degrees 55 minutes West 200.00 feet

North 125.00 feet

This sequence will draw the following lot

 Figure 2. Plotting a metes and bounds description using the computer program MetesandBounds. Note that the first line is typically from a known point in a township to enable the absolute location to be established.



This website has been written and developed by Rob Ransom, PhD. Rob has extensive experience working with buyers and sellers of vacant land in San Diego County, CA. Although Rob currently has a California real estate license he is retired from selling real estate.

If you have comments or suggestions regarding this web site, email Rob at the address below.


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