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Rectangular Survey System


A surveying method developed and used in the United States to divide real property into defined plots for settling and sale.


The Rectangular Survey System, also known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), Section Township Range System and Jeffersonian System, was originally proposed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and formalized by the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The system became necessary as the United States rapidly expanded beyond the original thirteen colonies, incorporating new areas including the Northwest Territory.

The Rectangular Survey System divides land into quadrangles, townships and sections, using meridians (north-south lines) and baselines (east-west lines).

The federal system outlines 36 fixed points in the country from which separate surveys begin.  An imaginary line north-south, the principal meridian, and a line east-west, the baseline, run through each point.

Range lines are situated parallel to the meridian and six miles apart, while township lines are parallel to the baseline and six miles apart.  The intersection of the range lines and township lines create townships that are six miles square, or 36 square miles. A legal description of a township might state: Nebraska, Fourth Principal Meridian T6N, R4W, sec3 — meaning section 3 in the township located six townships north and four townships west of the Fourth Principal Meridian.

A township is divided into 36 sections. It is 640 acres large. Each section can be divided into quarters and/or halves, which can then be further divided.  The location of a piece of land can be pinpointed by the numbering and directional system of this survey method based on its relative position to the principal meridian and baseline.

Experts mention the Rectangular Survey System’s ease of use as one of its advantages. Citing a section, township and range allows quickly identifying the location of a property inside a state within one square mile (640 acres).

States Using the Rectangular Survey System:

The Rectangular Survey System is used in 30 southern and western states.

Additional Uses of the Rectangular Survey System:

In Illinois, the Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) Utilities Company has been making use of PLSS information in order to map out a system of electrical microgrids, units that can connect and disconnect from the main electrical grid to enable operations in both grid-connected or island mode. This technology already has proven its worth in the aftermath of natural disasters such as the Tohuku earthquake in Fukushima, Japan, when – despite the tsunami and nuclear disaster that followed it – two small microgrids continued to provide service to customers, including a retirement home. Microgrids also kept the lights on for portions of university campuses in New York and New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Using the Rectangular Survey System, the utility divided its service territory into nearly 13,000 subsections. This process is used to determine which areas of the state would most benefit from the additional resiliency afforded by a microgrid system.

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