Ryan Crownholm, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, is fighting the state of California for giving him a fine of $1,000 for drawing maps.
Crownholm, who is the founder of MySitePlan.com, a website that allows people to purchase informal maps for their property drawn from preexisting information and images, was issued a citation from the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, who claimed that Crownholm and the site were illegally practicing land surveying without a license.
The board stated that to “depict the location of property lines, fixed works, and the geographical relationship thereto” requires a license, and required Crownholm to not only pay a $1,000 fine but stop his business.
The board’s language—that anyone who “depicts the location of property lines” and features within those lines needs a license—is broad and vague. It could be interpreted that anyone who’s ever drawn a map in California without a license is breaking the law.
“Somebody's got to do something and fight back. I mean, this is, this is how I've made a living for myself for a lot of years,” Crownholm told Motherboard. “There's a lot of other business owners in California that are being sort of strangled by these policies that don't serve anyone, and certainly not the people of California.”
Crownholm has teamed up with the Institute for Justice to take the board to federal court, where they’ve brought three claims against the Board. In the first claim, they say that the board violates Crownholm’s First Amendment right to free speech. Secondly, they argue that “California’s definition of land surveying is unconstitutionally overbroad and unconstitutionally vague.” The team argues third for an “in-the-alternative claim under the Fourteenth Amendment,” meaning that the board’s regulations should advance legitimate government interest and not discriminate against “similarly situated people,” which in this case refers to Crownholm and other people who draw their own site plans.
On Crownholm’s site, there is a bold disclaimer at the top which says “THIS IS NOT A LEGAL SURVEY, NOR IS IT INTENDED TO BE OR REPLACE ONE.” The company’s “About” page clearly states that it uses publicly available information, such as Google Maps, online Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and other programs with satellite imagery to create its digital drawings. It also says, “If your building department DOES NOT require a Surveyor, Engineer, or Architect Stamp our plans are just what you need!”
Building departments regularly accept plan drawings from non-surveyors and even give instructions to contractors and homeowners on how to create their own site drawings. Crownholm started his career as a contractor and learned how to create site plans, which is a requirement when applying for permits. For example, the city building department of San Gabriel, California has a pamphlet that answers questions such as “What is a Site Plan?” and “How do I prepare a Site Plan?” and guides homeowners to use free online GIS data. Customers go to MySitePlan.com to make this process easier for them, whether it’s restaurants looking to plan outdoor dining tables or wedding venues working on an upcoming ceremony.
Local officials encouraging people to create their own site drawings contradicts the board’s claim that anyone who depicts a site map needs a license. The Institute of Justice wrote about Crownholm’s case that “there is no way to tell why MySitePlan.com’s site plan drawings are illegal but the thousands of site plan drawings submitted by non-surveyors to California building departments are not.”
“Essentially, at the end of the day, what we are is a professional tracing company. We just take the existing information, and we just repurpose it and it's the same thing that every contractor in California does, every homeowner in California does,” Crownholm said. “Whenever they need a permit, when they need building permits, in particular, they state specifically that they do not need to hire a surveyor, architect, or engineer. We're basically just working as an extension to them, you know, it's like a person who doesn't want to change their car's oil, [so] we change it for them.”
The Institute of Justice said that if the board goes through with its action of shutting down Crownholm’s business, it would serve as a harmful precedent to anyone doing mapping and map-making.
“For the board to say that I'm not allowed to do it, they'll also have to tell all the building departments that they have to change all their policies and that all the homeowners won't be allowed to talk for themselves anymore, and all the contractors,” Crownholm said. “Oh, and by the way, Zillow and Redfin, and all these other companies that use the same database should shut down as well.”
“As our complaint explains, it's been long recognized that a literal interpretation of surveying practice statutes would make a lot of common everyday things illegal without a license: GIS data, the many uses now of things like Google Maps,” said Paul Avelar, the lawyer representing Crownholm and managing attorney at the Institute for Justice Arizona Office.
The requirement for everyone who draws maps to have a surveying license would restrict currently public GIS data that is not only used for housing purposes but depict COVID-19 cases, crime rates and patterns, and current wildfires. Obtaining a surveying license in California requires six years of full-time experience in land surveying, followed by taking and passing four exams and paying the $175 application fee.
This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.