Thursday, October 17, 2002
John Rolfe: SHOPTALK
He knows the angle

Shoptalk allows people to describe in their own words the rewards and challenges of their jobs. In doing so, they reflect the energy, imagination and hard work that characterize the workplace in Maine. The questions for Shoptalk are compiled by staff writer John Rolfe. Do you know of someone who would make an interesting candidate for Shoptalk? Send your suggestion to Rolfe at 791-6429 or

  • Shoptalk: Robert T. Greenlaw
  • Occupation: Professional land surveyor
  • Title: President
  • Company: Back Bay Boundary, Inc.
  • Address: 65 Newbury St., Portland
  • Web address:
  • Dream job: This. I’ve always dreamed of being my own boss.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: A land title plan for a printing company on Forest Avenue. They’re selling the property and the title company that is going to insure the loan needs to have a land title plan done.

Q: What’s a land title plan?
A: Basically, a plan that shows all the improvements to a property – buildings, pavings and so on, so the title company knows exactly what it’s insuring. We utilize deeds provided by lawyers, and also do research at the Cumberland County registry, to make sure the property in the deeds is the property on the ground, that the deed accurately describes what the purchasers are purchasing. When we have enough information from the deeds, we go out in the field and survey the site. We download all the information into the computer using AutoCad (computer-aided drafting), then draft a plan to be recorded at the registry.
And replace any property corners, to mark what you own.

Q: Who are your clients?
A: We support architects, developers and attorneys. We do both commercial and residential, split about equally between Peaks Island and the mainland.
We’ve also tried to help out when we can, such as donating surveys to Habitat for Humanity. One of my favorite projects was when we mapped the trails in the woods behind Baxter Elementary School, showing about 90 of the kids how we work, and gave the map to the school.

Q: How much would it cost, if I wanted my yard done? 
A: Here in Portland . . . after we do the research and look at the property, an average price would be $1,000 to $1,500. But it’s hard to predict. We can run into title problems, and extended research can get the price up there, especially with an older property. You might have to research back to when the property was originally conveyed as a lot.

Q: How did you train to become a surveyor? 
A: I’m the last of a dying breed. I was hired 19 years ago as a crew member at EC Jordan, engineers and land surveyors, right on Congress Street. I worked my way up through the different crew positions, and was going to school at night.
I came in at a good time, using the older technology of compass and steel tape, and progressed as the technology changed to laser to measure distance and elevation, then to global positioning systems.

Q: What attracted you to the job?
A: The combination of being outside – you’re always working in a different place, so you don’t get bored – and the historical part of the job.
The 1600s and 1700s interest me greatly, as a Portland native. One thing that struck me was reading a deed from the 1700s describing a property that started at a pest house. It was on Munjoy Hill, up near Quebec Street. There were two in Portland – the other one was far out Brighton Avenue.

Q: And yours is an ancient profession, I believe. 
A: Surveying goes back to ancient Egypt. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were surveyors. Abraham Lincoln trained with compass and tape – just one of the professions he tried while growing up.

Q: How does one become licensed now?
A: You have to have seven years of solid experience in the land surveying field, or a degree in land surveying technology from a university. Then you sit for the first part of the state-and-national land surveying test, a two-part exam over eight hours. It’s terrible, believe me. If you pass that, you work under a licensed land surveyor for two years, then take the professional exam, another combined state-and-federal test, multiple choice, and also eight hours. Then you do a take-home exam, completing a project exactly like one a client would send you, before you can open a business and start serving the public. I began this business in 1999.

Q: Is there a need for more surveyors?
A: There is. I saw a new list the other day according to which there are only 133 land surveyors outside the state allowed to survey in Maine. There are a little over 450 of us in Maine, covering the whole state.

Q: So there’s more than enough work for everyone? 
A: There is, yeah. The job we started Monday is our 118th of the year.

Q: Have you surveyed your own yard?
A: Yes, but that’s unusual. You know the rule – the auto body technician drives a rustbucket.

Q: Is the job physically demanding?
A: It can be. When the crew was on a job in Porter last summer, the clusters of black flies were so thick the lasers wouldn’t shoot. We’re doing a job in Phippsburg now which goes from the ocean to 160 feet up, all ledge and pine trees. One crew member has to go up and down the slope. Guys have to be in good condition to climb that, and to carry 40-50 pounds of equipment through the woods. They’re outdoorsmen, basically. Personally, I’ve surveyed mines, and hung over a broken spillway on a dam on the Kennebec, to get the elevation. That was treacherous, in the winter. And as part of a different company I personally surveyed the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, when the elder Bush was president. That was logistically tough, having to be checked by the FBI to get on-site, and being escorted by the Secret Service everywhere we went.