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Why is Wisconsin (and the Midwest) Square?

by John Casucci 12. June 2014 04:30

When on an airplane or viewing Google Earth, have you observed how roads create a grid pattern?  Have you ever wondered why it is that way?

The simplest answer is because land surveyors in the early 1800s established the grid pattern.  But there’s really a more interesting story behind why Wisconsin (and the Midwest) is square.

For those of you old enough to remember, put yourself into the setting of the television show Little House on the Prairie that aired back in the 1970s and 1980s. Your family purchased 40 acres, built a cabin and began farming. As you finish plowing and planting your field, you look up and see your neighbor’s wagon and family walking across your just-plowed field on their way to town. You see, the original survey instructions did not address roads or traveling through the subdivided lands. Only after the Midwest was settled did the county or local government allow landowners to petition for the creation of a public road right of way. At that time it made sense to have each landowner contribute to the creation of the roads, so most were established along common property lines that just happen to be the grid patterns established by the first surveyors. 

So the reason why the Midwest is so square is because the land was subdivided that way…AND the grid is the result of the 1800s road agreements to keep neighbors off each other’s land!

So how was it decided to create the grid pattern?
As a result of the Louisiana and other land purchases, the West was open to subdivision and settlement.  At the 1785 Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson is largely credited with the concept of “survey before settlement.” Several factors influenced the subdivision of the land:

  • Immigrants were streaming into the country, creating a huge demand to settle in the West.
  • The US Treasury had an urgent need for money.
  • There was a need for surveyed boundaries to avoid conflicts with settlers and the government.
  • Surveyed boundaries allowed the settlers to FIND the land (no realtors back then).
  • Land prices were low, $1.25 an acre, which created a need for fast, efficient survey work.
  • Surveyors earned from $4 to $10 per mile, split between a crew of five to eight men.

Original instructions for the division of land in the early 1800s called for the creation of townships. Townships were created by running lines with a magnetic compass every six miles: in a north–south direction (range lines) and east-west direction (town lines). Townships were created as a 36-square mile block, numbered from Section 1 to Section 36.

After the townships were surveyed, other surveyors were charged with creating and monumenting the interior 36 Sections, each one mile by one mile square. Monuments were set every 1/2 mile. This procedure established the framework of the four-quarter sections of each section. 

Quarter Sections 

Breakdown of Quarter Sections

Monuments were whatever was plentiful nearby. In Wisconsin, wood posts were set. In the Plains, an earth mound was created or stones were carried to the corner to create a pile of stones.  It was expected as the land was passed from generation to generation, the owners would perpetuate the original monuments.

So now you know the whole story behind why Wisconsin (and the Midwest) is square and why land is subdivided the way it is!



Wisconsin Changes Professional Surveyor Designation

by John Casucci 30. May 2014 08:30

As of September 1, 2014, all registered land surveyors in the state of Wisconsin will have the designation Professional Land Surveyor (PLS). Prior to this change, surveyors were referred to as a Licensed Land Surveyor, Registered Land Surveyor or Professional Land Surveyor, all of which are interchangeable titles referencing the same certification. This change was enacted to clarify state laws and standardize the designation. 





Wisconsin Implements J-Turn Intersections

by Tom Conto 19. May 2014 05:04

J-turn intersections, also known as restricted crossing U-turns, are being implemented in Wisconsin and nationwide. These new intersections are changing how motorists navigate through high-speed, divided highways. The J-turn requires motorists that intend to go left or straight at these intersections, first turn right onto the roadway and then perform a U-turn at the indicated “J” turning location.

This new intersection design reduces the number of traffic crossing points, minimizing the likelihood of fatal accidents. Drivers have a significantly reduced chance of side-impact collisions in a J-turn intersection because the vehicle doesn’t directly cross over multiple lanes of traffic.  

R.A. Smith National provided construction oversight and management for the J-Turn intersection constructed at the WIS 23 and County M intersection in Sheboygan County. Prior to installation of the J-Turn, this intersection had a high rate of right-angle vehicle collisions. Three additional intersections - Fairview Drive, CTH E and Pleasant View at WIS 23 - were constructed with dedicated left-turn lanes and right-turn only intersections to further reduce accident potential.

View this video released by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation explaining how to drive in a J-turn and its benefits. 


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Construction Services

A New Twist on Property Condition Assessments

by Chuck Stevens 29. April 2014 05:40

One of the turns from the recession has been a renewed emphasis on repurposing existing buildings. 

In the healthcare field, there is a particular emphasis due to the Affordable Care Act, which through new reimbursement models, drives services to be centralized in an ambulatory care setting rather than in a traditional in-hospital format. According to the Geiger Gibson Program in Community Health Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., the number of patients served by smaller community health centers will nearly double those served in 2009 – climbing to 33.8 million by 2015. And the Urban Land Institute estimates that the 32 million people anticipated to be ultimately insured under the ACA will translate into a need for an additional 64 million square feet of medical space.  

The result is a trend in siting community-based medical office buildings in a hub and spoke type of scenario off the hospital campus. The trend also sets up a new twist on property condition assessments, PCAs. 

Former retail, office or other space targeted by healthcare providers places importance on condition and suitability in unique ways – from structure to access. And lenders may, in fact, require documentation about the condition of that property being considered before they make a determination to move forward with financing of the transaction.

Through our experience on thousands of properties across the nation, we have recognized that due diligence on a property often means fragmented information and information gaps collected from numerous sources. Not an ideal situation for informed decisions. 

To provide buyers with cohesive information for more informed decisions, we have designed a single-source PCA to meet the precise needs or desires of a buyer. Fully tailored to a buyer’s needs and direction, the PCA is scalable from a basic quick-look investigation to a detailed assessment of all aspects of a site and building. If you are interested in finding out more, send us a note at

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Land Development

Clean Water Fund Advisory Group Finalizes Recommendations, Proposed Rule Changes Advance

by Karen Wiesneski 22. April 2014 05:10

The Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources and an advisory group met for the last time on April 15, 2014, to finalize their recommendations for changes to the Wisconsin Clean Water Fund program (WDNR Chapter 162).  The group has met periodically since early February 2014. Substantive changes that have been proposed are listed below.

*   A revised priority scoring system to be incorporated into the Priority Evaluation and Ranking Form (PERF) has been recommended for the revolving loan fund program.

*   While not part of the rule revision process, the DNR is implementing an online Intent to Apply (ITA) submittal process in the fall of 2014 for the 2015 ITA submittals. Once the rules are in effect (spring/summer 2015), the WDNR will begin programming for an on-line self-scoring PERF to accompany the online ITA form.

*   The date for annual ITA and PERF submittals will change when the rules are enacted (anticipated spring 2015) from December 31 to October 31.

*   Options are provided for sanitary districts and sewerage districts by which MHI (median household income) is calculated in determining eligibility for hardship financial assistance or principal forgiveness on a loan. This change is necessary based on the time and cost for obtaining this information for non-standard municipal boundaries.  While the group noted that the new American Community Survey (ACS) methodology can result in a large margin of error, the statutes require that the data be provided by the US Census Bureau.  

Sanitary districts and sewerage districts, because of their unique boundaries, may use one of the following methods for determining their MHI:  1) Requesting a custom tabulation of income data at the census block level from the American Community Survey most recently published with 5-year data after providing the ACS with the census block information for the district; 2) The median household income of the census tract or block numbering area that encompasses the municipality.  If the municipality falls within two or more census tracts or block numbering areas, the median household income shall be weighted by the population of the municipality that resides within each minor civil division; or 3) The median household income of the minor civil division, such as a town, within which the municipality is located.  If the municipality falls within two or more minor civil divisions, the median household income shall be weighted by the population of the municipality that resides within each minor civil division. The applicant will be responsible for collecting this data which will be valid for a one-year period.

*   The total estimated cost of a project to be funded under the small loan program (through the State Trust Fund administered by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands) will be increased from $1 million or less to $2 million or less.

A tentative schedule for finalizing new rules is as follows: two-week economic impact public comment period end of April, early May; rules submitted to the Natural Resources Board at their June board meeting for public hearing authorization; 30-day public comment period in July; and changes made and rules finalized end of August or September 2014.  DNR staff anticipate requesting NRB adoption late fall and then subsequent legislative review in spring 2015.  The effective date of the rule is anticipated to be summer 2015.

If you have any questions about the rule revisions, please contact Robin Schmidt, Chief, Environmental Loans Section, at 608-266-3915 or  Updates to the rule will be posted on the DNR web site and in E-Bulletins at

If you would like to discuss a specific project need (funding or engineering related) with R.A. Smith National, please contact Chuck Pape at Chuck is a civil engineer with R.A. Smith National and was a voluntary member of the advisory group. He has 30+ years of prior experience with WDNR, serving primarily as their first point of contact for all Clean Water Fund projects in southeastern Wisconsin. Chuck’s experience with the existing funding system at WDNR provided a unique perspective on priority scoring and loan eligibility.

R.A. Smith National will continue to track the progress of these rule changes and communicate updates through this grants newsletter, our online grants directory at and our Wisconsin Grant Seekers group on LinkedIn.




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