A month after Douglas County Surveyor Dale Hamilton was sworn into office in 2011, he discovered that hundreds, if not thousands of witness corners had been destroyed in Highlands Ranch during sidewalk replacement projects in 2005 and 2007.
Witness corners, also known as reference monuments, are small metal discs secured by a nail in the sidewalk placed at a specific distance from a property corner to help determine property lines. According to Hamilton, as well as state statute, it is illegal to remove these reference monuments without proper and professional replacement.
After bringing the issue to the commissioners’ attention in February 2011, Hamilton was told he would need to bid for the work. Despite being an elected official, Hamilton, who has been in the surveying business for 51 years, only gets paid $5,500 annually for his position, and all county surveying work is traditionally contracted out.
The witness corners need to be reset, Hamilton says, in order to protect property owners from possible issues ranging from neighbors building or tearing down fences on their land to planting or removing trees — or worse, selling land that doesn’t belong to them.
Hamilton made requests for funds in March and April 2011 to the commissioners and received no response. In May the commissioners acknowledged the destruction of the monuments, agreed the witness corners should be reset and again asked Hamilton to submit a competitive proposal for the work. After a proposal in August again got no response, Hamilton stopped pursuing the issue — for a brief time.
In February 2012, as issues began to pile up between the parties, the commissioners brought in outside counsel — to avoid any conflict of interest with Douglas County attorney Lance Ingalls — and took Hamilton to court, stating that his duty is to settle disputes as they arise and not go out and inspect plats for issues of compliance.
The parties have been tied up in litigation since.
“It’s an unfortunate turn of events that the commissioners have to turn around and sue another elected official to do his job the way everybody except Mr. Hamilton thinks he should do his job,” said former Morgan County attorney George Monsson, who is representing the commissioners in the still-unresolved case.
“The money they are spending on this, which is already in the five figures, could certainly go for far better things than it is.”
What is the surveyor’s job?
The issue at stake, both parties agree, is what exactly the job of county surveyor entails. According to Hamilton, he is obligated to protect taxpayers. According to commissioners, he is supposed to settle disputes when, and only when, disputes arise.
“As county surveyor, I have a duty to protect survey monuments,” Hamilton said. “I’m obligated to protect the taxpayers, but the commissioners refuse to fund my office to allow me to do this. The county refuses to give me an office. I have no budget. I pay for my own computer, my own phone, my own stamps and even my own gas.
“I ran to establish this office and was met with resistance the day I got there. The commissioners have taken the attitude that they are not concerned about this. They don’t see the importance of the work surveyors do. ... This work must be completed in order to bring the county into compliance with state law.”
Hamilton’s history with surveying law includes being part of a Colorado Supreme Court case in which he and his firm, Hamilton Enterprises LLC, helped to establish the very law that states it is illegal to destroy such monuments and not have them properly and professionally replaced.
Hamilton has been told by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, with whom he filed a complaint against the county in September 2012, that the county would replace any survey markers that were destroyed in the sidewalk repair projects if the affected property owners came forward. If a property owner hired a private surveyor to do this work it would cost upward of $400, Hamilton says.
And while Monsson points out that no one has come forward as of yet and complained, Hamilton’s beef is that the county is not in compliance on the issue and that most citizens don’t even realize the importance of the markers until they need them.
“The heart of this case is the abuse of power by the county commissioners wanting to run my office,” Hamilton said. “For years there has never been an office established here. I don’t know that it’s ever been discussed here before, but it should be.
“Most importantly, it’s the destruction of the private property by the county that really bothers me. If they would do something about it, I’d withdraw my complaint.”
And while Hamilton’s complaint is still open, so is the case pending against him.
“The real dispute is how you read the statutes and what Mr. Hamilton wants to do and how he wants to change things,” Monsson said. “After numerous disagreements the county made the decision to sue to have the judge properly interpret the statutes.
“Maybe Hamilton’s right, maybe the county surveyor should be doing more things, but that’s up to the Douglas County commissioners to decide if this is really a good idea to take money from an existing program and put it into this project of his. And so far Mr. Hamilton hasn’t been able to convince the commissioners of that fact.”
Now, Hamilton and the commissioners will have to wait and see what 18th Judicial District Court Judge Paul King understands to be the duties of the county surveyor.