Demand for surveyors high

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The booming construction industry in Routt County is causing the area's few land surveyors to work long weeks. A new city ordinance requiring surveys of new buildings at the foundation stage will only add to the load.

James "Bear" Ackerman of Emerald Mountain Surveys said the 50 jobs he's juggling include four large, rural subdivisions. Some jobs have been pending for months because his three crews have so much work to do.

"I might be able to fit in another small job within two or three weeks," he said.

Brian Kelly of BTK Surveys said, like Acker--man, he might be able to fit a small job between larger projects, but he has jobs backed up for weeks.

"From April to mid-November, I work 60 to 70 hours a week," Kelly said.

Ackerman said his wife generally enforces a "no work on Sundays" edict, but he works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and usually works in the field for a few hours on Saturdays.

"I haven't really slowed down in four years," he said.

Skidge Moon of D&D Inc. said this summer is particularly busy for surveyors because a cold, rainy June delayed a number of projects, condensing construction projects into the beginning of July.

Ackerman said some of Steamboat's larger excavation companies are taking on their own surveying work. They have learned that, with high-tech GPS instrumentation (far more precise and expensive than handheld consumer devices sufficient for hiking), they can set up an in-house surveying department that allows one employee with robotic equipment to shoot elevations and grades on a job site. He isn't bothered that the excavators are absorbing some of the demand for surveying.

The city's new ordinance, passed early this month, requires a builder to engage a surveyor to stake the excavation before pouring a foundation as well as providing a survey of the completed foundation.

The ordinance is intended to avoid the hardships for building owners that are associated with violations of building heights, side setbacks and other zoning regulations. In the city's experience, violations too often are discovered after a building is complete.

"The economic impact on the owner of a substantially completed structure of being forced to move a foundation is so substantial that the city frequently has no practical or legal ability to enforce its regulations," city staff attorney Dan Foote wrote in a memo to City Council.

Ackerman said he thinks the city should have taken responsibility for ensuring that foundations have been placed properly on the building lot.

"I think it's a travesty the city isn't standing on its own two feet and is passing the liability back on us," Ackerman said. "For a $500 job, I have to assume the liability on a $1 million or $2 million home."

Kelly said meeting the new demand for foundation surveys won't be as simple as hiring more surveyors. Fewer people are entering the field.

Ackerman added that he doesn't think he can effectively supervise the three field teams he already employs.

Surveyors are licensed by the state. Kelly has a four-year degree in surveying from the University of Colorado, but few universities and colleges offer the degree. And most college students with strong mathematical abilities will opt for engineering instead of surveying because of higher earnings potential, Kelly said.

Other licensed surveyors serve an informal apprenticeship in the industry. But a requirement that prospective surveyors work for 10 years under the supervision of a licensed surveyor before they can apply for a license themselves discourages many. It also discourages construction professionals, such as carpenters, contemplating a career change in their 40s.

"The surveying industry is under the gun right now in Colorado," Kelly said. The shortage of surveyors isn't just apparent in Northwest Colorado, but statewide, he said.

Ackerman employs a pair of two-man surveying teams, a fifth employee who works on his own in the field, another person to do computer-assisted design work and a bookkeeper.

Kelly's is a four-person office, including himself. He said larger jobs require one hour of computer work in the office for every four hours in the field. Small jobs, like surveying a garage or deck addition to ensure it doesn't encroach on side setbacks, require just as much office time. An hour in the field on a small job necessitates an hour at the computer.

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