How to Find and Blaze Your Property Lines

Property boundary location and maintenance is a crucial, yet often neglected component of rural property management. While it is often taken for granted, land ownership can be rather vague. Often in larger and more backwoods, rural properties, property lines may be the result of a subdivision that was never surveyed. Other times, the lines may have been established one hundred years ago and never since maintained. When legal principles like adverse possession and prescribed easement are considered, you may own little more than a legal argument to your acreage, and any attempts to conduct a timber harvest or develop the property may land you in legal hot water. Thus, it is absolutely crucial to know where your boundary lines are and to blaze them accordingly. In this article, we will discuss the principles and concepts of property boundary maintenance to help you find and blaze your own, but first, a caveat.

Every jurisdiction governs property boundaries differently. In some cases, a professional survey may be required, in others, it may be unnecessary. Know your local laws. In any situation, seeking the services of a professional surveyor is always the best and safest option to prevent a dispute. However, given the often prohibitive costs of surveys, it may be preferable to negotiate any ambiguity through mutual understanding with the adjacent landowner.

With that out of the way, let’s begin by discussing your deed and property description.

Understanding Your Deed

The first step to find and blaze your property lines is to get ahold of your deed. You were likely given a copy at the closing when you purchased the property, but if has been a while or you no longer have a copy, one can easily be found at your county registry of deeds (often called the county recorder in some states). In most cases, these offices serve as a library of deeds, surveys, and maps dating back to the area’s settlement. It can be difficult to navigate, but most offices should have staff on hand able to assist, possibly for a fee.

The deed will contain a few key pieces of information, including the parties involved in a transaction, previous conveyances, and any restrictions or easements. The most applicable section you want to find is what’s called the property description, which defines and delineates the boundaries of the property. Here is what it looks like for one of my woodlots in Maine:

Commencing at an iron rod set at the northerly bound of the South Road, so called, and the southwesterly corner of Lot 123 according to the plan of Oakfield aforesaid…

Thence northerly and parallel with the westerly line of lot 123 one thousand five hundred (1500) feet to a point;

Thence westerly and parallel with the northerly bounds of the South Road four hundred (400) feet, more or less, to the westerly line of Lot 123 and being a point on the easterly bounds of the parcel conveyed to Martin in Vol. 2113, Page 216;

Then southerly along the westerly line of lot 123 and also being the easterly bounds of the aforesaid Martin Parcel one thousand five hundred (1500) feet, more or less, to the iron rod set on the northerly bounds of the South Road and being the point and place of beginning.

Did you follow that? Probably not. these descriptions can often be a bit convoluted and difficult to follow, so it helps to read the description carefully and make a sketch of what it is conveying, complete with labels and any physical reference points. You can see a sketch of the above description pictured below.

Once you have your sketch completed, it is time to head out into the field.

Finding Reference Points and Lines

Once you are at your property, you must begin by searching any of the physical reference points or lines referenced, as these will serve as a benchmark to find and blaze your lines

In most cases, the first and most obvious reference line will be any road adjacent to the property, but reference points are fairly limited in utility. A line theoretically extends to infinity, so it doesn’t ground your ownership to any actual location. A point, such as an iron rod in my case, is going to give you a corner of the property and thus a real anchor point to determine where you property lines really are.

These physical points are referred to as a monument. Monuments can be anything from survey pins, to rock piles, and even old trees! In the case of my property above, only one corner is being described as being marked with an iron rod as a monument. The rest are merely “points.” Thus, my property had only one solid reference point. The other corners were not established. The more established points you have, the easier it will be to find and blaze your property lines, as it gives you more opportunities to find a starting point if some monuments are missing or difficult to locate.

Finding a reference point may be the most difficult part of the process, but luckily, you only need to find one. From one point, you can measure out and follow lines to find the other points. Its always a good idea to search for as many monuments as you can, as it can save you time if they are easy to find. After all, a line is easy to find if you have both end segments. However, any point that is not marked by a monument will need to be re-established by a licensed professional surveyor or by mutual agreement of abutting landowners. If the monument does not exist, you cannot legally and accurately re-establish it on your own.

Searching For Boundary Evidence

After any monuments have been located, it is time to find any evidence of your property lines. Before any line is blazed, do a thorough preliminary investigation of all lines. Search for any evidence that might exist of previously established lines. These might include old blazes (marks) on trees, remnants of old fence and walls, and evidence of use.

Aerial Imagery

As with all field work, success begins in the home or office in the form of preliminary research. In the case of boundary evidence, this means finding and analyzing current and historical aerial imagery. Of course the most popular (and most obvious) source of aerial imagery is Google Earth, but Google Earth imagery only goes back to the mid-80s, and it can be useful to go back even further. Depending on your location, older imagery might exist, but you might be able to find it using Historical Aerials, which often has imagery going back to the 50s.

Looking once more at my property, looking at even current imagery shows clear differentiation of ownership along the westerly line.

Now with the historical context of how old the line is and how it was used, it is easier to find and mark those property lines on the ground or use them to find previously-established monuments.

Physical Evidence

Depending on the history of your property, physical evidence on the ground may inform you of the general location of a boundary and make it easier to find old survey monuments. This physical evidence includes old painted or blazed lines, the remnants of old walls and fences, or noticeable differences in the forest and evidence of harvest.

Old Blazes

Old blazes are the most obvious form of evidence… At least in theory. On the ground, they can be anything but obvious. They may come in the form of old, faded, and cracked paint, or it might be a barely-noticeable axe gouge that has since mostly grown over. In the case of the latter, they can be difficult to identify because they present as an innocuous scar on a tree. The key is to look for a pattern of them. If most trees in an area are scarred at a certain height, these are likely old blaze marks.

Also, if a line had been marked (poorly) in the last 20 years with plastic ribbon, you can usually see the occasional ribbon knot left on a branch. The majority of the ribbon has since chipped away, but the knot will remain! I can tell you from experience that nothing is more satisfactory than marking a line and coming across an old ribbon. It’s good reassurance that you are doing the job well.

Fencing and Walls

On the East coast and in New England especially, most forests and rural properties were at one point farmland in the last 300 years. Thus, they tend to be full of complex networks of old stone walls and barbed-wire fences that divided these once-agricultural lands. This has been the case with every property I have owned.

Below is the remains of an old wire fence and cedar fence post that once divided a potato field from the railroad in the 1940s. That land had since grown over into an aspen forest and was the site of my first house. The old fence helped me locate old monuments and helped me determine where my property ended and the rail ROW began.

Fences offer crucial evidence to help you find and blaze your property lines.

On the woodlot mentioned in the deed earlier, the westerly line was established in the 1850s, so the evidence I found was much older and degraded than the fence above, but it still existed. Below you can see what looks like little more than a patch of rocky ground. It is, in actuality, the remains of an old rock wall that spans the entire western boundary. In this case, I think this was a fairly crude rock wall to begin with. There exist many examples of beautiful rock walls from the 18th century that remain fairly intact, so any rock walls you find on your property could look very different. But this is about as degraded as they come, so it is a good reference.

Old rock walls are an easy way to find your property lines.

Tree Stumps and Differences in Stand Types.

While this might be easily identified from aerial imagery, it is still worth mentioning. You may be able to see property lines from the presence of old, decayed tree stumps on one side and not the other. Alternatively, you may see stark differences in the types of forest. One side may be dominated with species like oak or maple while the other side is dominated by aspen. In the most obvious examples, one side may have been planted in the past, which creates a clear boundary identifiable by virtually anyone.

The Purpose of Boundary Evidence

Its worth noting (or reiterating), that evidence of a previous boundary is different than the boundary itself. Errors may have been made in the past, and even if it is accurate, it may only represent a general 3-5ft swath where the real sub-centimeter boundary exists. Thus, the purpose of finding boundary evidence is to help you locate the monuments specified in the deed. It is these monuments that are the basis of your legal claim to a slice of the earth’s surface. Once more, if no monuments exist, you will need the assistance of a surveyor or come to an agreement with your neighbors.

Blazing the Boundary

Once you find all property lines and existing monuments, it comes time to blaze the line. You will ideally need a transit-style compass (its best to use one with a staff or tripod) and 100 foot tape (if you need to locate a monument), you will also need orange flagging to mark out the line BEFORE you make any permanent blazes.

Using a Tape and Compass to Delineate.

Before you blaze any lines, you need to mark out a straight line between two corners. Begin by referencing the deed description to get a bearing or azimuth of a line in degrees. In my case, my lines are perfectly north to south and east to west, so it is easy, but your deed may specify differently. Bring a sketch of the property out to the field with you and label the necessary azimuths and back azimuths for each line so you don’t forget.

When you are in the field, start by holding the compass directly over a known monument and shooting an azimuth toward the next monument. Use the compass or transit sights to find a specific point along that azimuth (ideally a thin tree or hanging branch) and walk to that point and hang a ribbon. Once the ribbon is tied, move the compass to the new point, shoot a back azimuth toward the previous point to double check accuracy, and if it is acceptable, continue to shoot an azimuth to a new point toward the next monument. Continue until you arrive at the corner monument.

The great thing about this exercise is you can always check your accuracy by whether or not you arrive at your monument. If you find yourself quite a bit off, your line is not accurate, and you will need to try again. With practice, you would be surprised how close you can get your line.

If you need help finding a monument, you can add the extra step of measuring out the distance along each point and finding the likely end point based on the property description. However, length measurements are harder to make with accuracy due to elevation changes and other factors that complicate the process. Nonetheless, it can help you find the general location of where the monument should be, which is often enough to locate it.

Blazing the Line

To blaze your property line, you are going to need a hatchet or machete and paint. It is best to use purpose-designed tree marking paint.

Start by cutting away some bark and cambium to make a flat face on the wood as seen below.

Blaze your property lines with a hatchet.

Once the cut is made, simply paint over the wound. In most cases, the color won’t matter, but in some jurisdictions, colors have specific meanings. For example, many states have “purple paint laws” that designate purple-marked boundaries as conveying a posted, no-trespassing property. I tend to use blue because it is not otherwise found in the forest and can be easily seen.

Use paint to cover over your blaze marks.

The placement of these marks is important. It is customary to establish the blaze as facing the location of the legal boundary of the property. Thus, instead of acting as a more-or-less exact location, blazes act more as a sign post pointing to where the line actually is. Below you can see a diagram of how blazes would be established given the location of a boundary.

Every Situation Is Different

After reading this article, do you think you are up to the task? Will you be able to find and blaze your property lines? Every situation is unique, and while the average joe may be perfectly capable of this exercise in some situations, it may be infeasible (or totally unadvisable) in others. There may be situations where boundaries are so complex and monuments so lost to time that you have to call in a professional. But being an owner of rural timberland myself, I understand that such a solution may be a bit out of reach. Surveyors are expensive, and timberland properties may not be your top financial priority. In these situations, it may be best to reach out to your neighbors and try to reach a mutual understanding or cost share a boundary establishment. It’s generally a good idea to reach out to them anyway–it shows good faith, and they may be able to help you out. Just use your head and above all, know your laws!

Similar Posts