Just Where is this “North” Place Anyway? Understanding Deed Directional Descriptions

Deeds often contain directional descriptions. The deed might say that one boundary line of the property runs “north 57 degrees 5 minutes west 100 feet”. That means that the particular boundary line of the property is 100 feet long and it goes in a north-westerly direction by the degrees so described.  If you check the various deed in your chain of title describing your property that particular direction may vary from one deed to another. For instance, instead of “north 57 degrees 5 minutes west 100 feet” another deed back in the chain of title might say “north 55 degrees 2 minutes west 100 feet.”

Don’t panic. A deed direction or “bearing” may not come from the same “bearing base.” For instance, north may (and often does) refer to magnetic north. The location of magnetic north changes from time to time as the magnetic-north-pole wanders over northern Canada as a result of changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Surveyors actually have books which locate the position of magnetic north for previous years so that they can compare where “north” had been located at a particular point in time to a description in an older deed. This can result in having different deeds or surveys on the identical property possessing different directional compass readings. This can cause a problem, though, if the preparer of a deed simply “copies” an old description without having a surveyor adjust the description for the present location of the “magnetic north pole” - or at least noting that the description comes from a much older deed.

Note, also, that “North” can also refer to “geographic north” or “true north.” Geographic north or true north is that point is what we generally refer to as the “north pole” which is – not in Northern Canada – but in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. It is – more or less – that point around which the earth rotates enabling the passage of night and day.  There are “coordinate systems” at both the State and Federal level for determining the exact location of a property in relation to “geographic north” or “true north.” When dealing with the State of New Jersey, the State will sometimes require that a legal description refer to the “State Plane Coordinate System” which is the State system for referring to the location of true north.

Sometimes you have to know a property’s coordinates in order to file applications with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. You can actually locate the exact state coordinates for any property in this state at the NJDEP Geoweb server. That server is located at:      http://www.state.nj.us/dep/gis/geowebsplash.htm.

It takes a bit of time to figure out how to use the interface but there is a lot of useful information there for both practitioners and non-practitioners.

Author: Michael J. Fasano