Characteristics of Unlicensed Tree Experts

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Certain Characteristics of Unlicensed Tree Expert Companies Advertising in Maryland, U.S.  by Michael F. Galvin

Abstract. In 2005, Maryland’s tree expert licensing law, initially enacted in 1945, was amended to include tree removal as an activity requiring a tree expert license. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) sought to identify and communicate with the potentially affected community regarding the pending changes in the law by a number of means, including a search of companies advertising tree services in Maryland by online phone listings. The majority of firms (69.91%) found to be advertising tree services online were unlicensed tree experts (UnLTEs). A significant number of those UnLTEs (40%) did not provide full contact information, including a street address, and no current address was available for over 25% of them. Only 21 of the UnLTEs studied had ever been the subject of a complaint to MD DNR and those firms accounted for only 18.2% of complaints MD DNR received regarding UnLTEs during a 10 year period. UnLTEs were found in approximately equal measure in one of three business types: incorporated, unincorporated, or unknown (sole proprietorships, general partnerships, or noncompliant). UnLTEs are fairly ubiquitous in small numbers across Maryland with the largest concentrations found close to the borders of adjacent states, in the northeast metropolitan area of Maryland’s largest city (Baltimore), and around the state capital (Annapolis). Key Words. Arborists’ licensing; commercial arborists; tree experts.
 

DEFINITIONS

NOTE: All definitions refer to the period of time following the passage of House Bill 168 (explained subsequently). Licensed tree expert: a person who has received a license displaying the person’s qualifications to practice as a tree expert (State of Maryland 2005). Person: an individual, receiver, trustee, guardian, personal representative, fiduciary, representative of any kind, partnership, firm, association, corporation, or other entity (State of Maryland 1995).

Tree expert: a person who represents to the public that the person is skilled in the science of tree care or removal  and who, whether in the business of the person or as the employee of another person and whether under the title of arborist, tree specialist, tree surgeon, tree expert, or otherwise, engages in the business or work of the treatment, care, or removal of trees for compensation by

1. Making diagnoses, prescribing, and supervising the treatment for trees; or

2. Trimming, pruning, thinning, cabling, shaping, removing, or reducing the crown of trees. “Tree expert” does not include 1. A person engaged in commercial logging or timber harvesting operations; 2. A person engaged in the installation of underground facilities or any associated site construction; or
3. A person who treats, cares for, or removes a tree that is 20 ft tall or less (State of Maryland 2005).

Unlicensed tree expert: a person who is a tree expert but is not a licensed tree expert

BACKGROUND On 5 April 1945, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 61. This bill, the initial iteration of the Maryland Tree Expert law, required that persons performing tree care for hire be licensed by the State Forester. There are currently 671 licensed tree experts (LTEs) in Maryland. Tree care has historically been viewed by the State’s legislature and courts as not including tree removal.

In recent years, numerous bills have been introduced in various legislative sessions with the intent of modifying the definition of the work of a tree expert (TE) to include tree removal. Most of these have been introduced at the request of, or been supported by, LTEs. In a survey of LTEs, Galvin and Becker (1998) reported that one of the primary programmatic modifications recommended by LTEs was revision of the LTE law to include tree removal in the definition of tree Arboriculture & Urban Forestry 32(6): November 2006 271 Arboriculture & Urban Forestry 2006. 32(6):271–276. ©2006 International Society of Arboriculture care. Such a modification would require persons performing tree removal for hire to meet the requirements of TE licensing, including qualification, examination,  licensing, and proof of insurance.

The reasons for seeking inclusion of tree removal in the work of a TE included the following:

1. The American National Standard for safe work practices in the tree care industry includes “removing trees” in the scope of activities performed by arborists or tree experts (American National Standards Institute 2000);

2. Tree removal is often the most dangerous and expensive of tree care services. Ball and Vosberg (2003) reported that “Very few industries have a fatality rate above 30 per 100,000 . . . the fatality rate among police officers and detectives is about 13.5 per 100,000 . . . the annual fatality rate for tree workers generally does not dip below 30 per 100,000 and may be higher in some years.” To then have tree removal be the only tree service not requiring licensing or insurance is counterintuitive;

3. LTEs were subject to sanction (suspension or revocation of license) if found guilty of negligence or wrongful conduct in the practice of tree culture or care during tree removal, but unlicensed tree experts (UnLTEs) did not need a license to remove trees and had no obligation with regard to standards of practice when performing removals; and,

4. Enforcement was very difficult under the existing language because practitioners performing tree care without a license often asserted in court that they were performing tree removal rather than tree care or that they charged for removals but performed pruning and other tree care for free to removal customers, thereby making those activities exempt from the law.

House Bill 168 (Moe and Frush 2005) sought to expand the definition of the work of a TE to include tree removal or various means of treating the crowns of trees. The bill provided exemptions for commercial logging or timber harvesting, installation of underground utility facilities or associated site construction, and for any activity performed on trees that are 6 m (19.8 ft) or less in height.

The latter unusual exemption was a compromise between legislators and the landscape industry. Landscapers sought an exemption from the law, but “landscapers” are undefined in Maryland law and so could not be exempted by name. Moreover, the law applies to certain types of activities rather than to certain types of businesses. That is, the law is applicable to any entity performing tree care for hire whether they are a tree service, a landscaper, a home improvement contractor, or other type of business. The phrase “trees that are 20 feet or less in height” was derived from certain horticultural definitions of a tree being a woody plant that attains a height of at least 6 m (19.8 ft) at maturity (State of Maryland 2003).

This legislative action showed how the tree care industry can be proactive in partnering with government to arrive at a solution rather than be a non-participant on the receiving end of a legislative action that had no industry involvement or consideration.

The law requires that prospective licensees meet the qualifications for licensure, including passage of an examination administered by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR), and maintenance of insurance protection (liability and workers’ compensation) for the period that the license is in effect.

Enforcement mechanisms vary depending on whether the offender is an LTE or an UnLTE. If the offender is an LTE, penalties apply for: fraud or deceit in obtaining the license, negligence or wrongful conduct in the practice of tree culture or care, or violation of rules of ethics that the department promulgates (State of Maryland 2005). Penalties for LTEs are administrative; the only penalty available under law is suspension or revocation of the LTE’s license. If there is no settlement or remediation, and if the agency finds cause to proceed with an action against the LTE’s license, such cases are ultimately ruled on by an independent third party, an administrative law judge at Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings. If the offender is an UnLTE, penalties apply for operating a tree expert business without a license  r false advertising or soliciting an unlicensed tree expert business (District Court of Maryland 2003). These charges are misdemeanor criminal citations handled by the District Court system.

House Bill 168 passed and was effective 1 October 2005. Because many UnLTEs who would not be subject to penalty before passage of House Bill 168 could be subject penalty after the effective date of the legislation, MD DNR sought to identify and communicate with UnLTEs regarding the pending changes in the law in an effort to facilitate compliance. This was difficult because there was no registry of, or trade association for, UnLTEs. MD DNR ultimately mailed notice to over 1,400 UnLTEs identified by various means.

This article relates to one component of this outreach effort: identification of and outreach to UnLTEs advertising tree care services through online phone listings. We sought to answer the following questions related to these UnLTEs:

1. How many UnLTEs are there advertising by this means, and how does this compare  with the number of LTEs advertising in the same manner?

2. What types of contact information do these UnLTEs include in their advertising?

3. How many of these UnLTEs have previously been the subject of complaints to MD DNR regarding the LTE law? 272 Galvin: Unlicensed Tree Expert Companies ©2006 International Society of Arboriculture

4. How many of these UnLTEs have Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) Business Entity Registrations (BERs) and, if so, what type?

5. What response, if any, was received related to the notification mailed to these UnLTEs?

6. What is the spatial distribution of these UnLTEs?

This particular subset was differentiated from the rest of the group for the following reasons:

1. MD DNR had complete contact information for all other records in the listing of over 1,400 UnLTEs because they possessed some other state-issued license, registration, or credential that required provision of full contact information; and

2. Because false advertising or soliciting an unlicensed  tree expert business without a license is a criminal offense, this subset contained a listing of highly probable knowing or unknowing violators on the effective date of the change in law.
 

METHODS

 We searched online directories of Verizon and AT&T telephone listings for tree services and related businesses by using the business type query. The following business categories were searched: arborists, ornamental tree and shrub service, tree consultants, tree services commercial and industrial, tree and shrub spraying, tree and stump removal services, and tree trimming services. Results were transposed into an Excel spreadsheet with one worksheet per business category. All entries were appended to a master worksheet and sorted alphabetically by company name. Redundancies were eliminated.

Spreadsheet fields were added to denote: tree expert licensing status; whether the company had ever been the subject of a tree expert complaint; whether the company in question had an SDAT BER, and if so, the BER name; the BER stat s; the SDAT account number; the description of the business according to the BER filing; company contact information; the date notification of the law change was mailed to the particular company; and what the response was, if any, to the mailing.

Information on licensing status and complaint status was obtained from MD DNR databases. BER information was obtained from the SDAT Web site.

Information from the ZIP code field of the contact information from the spreadsheet was tallied and associated with a zip code GIS shapefile in ArcView. The data were classified by natural breaks in the data into three categories. The results were projected spatially in a GIS map.
 

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

After eliminating redundant entries found in multiple business category listings, the total number of entries was reduced from over 1,000 to 226. A comparison of the TE license status of the 226 companies advertising tree services in the online directories of Verizon and AT&T telephone listings is found in Table 1.


Table 1. Tally of all tree complaints, 1995 to 2005, by  Comparison of LTEs and UnLTEs advertising online

 

No. of TEs

Percentage of TEs

Tree expert (TE) type

 

 

Licensed (LTE)

68

30.09

Unlicensed (UnLTE)

158

69.91

Total

226

 



LTEs are required to file contact and insurance information annually to renew the license and are required by regulation to “ . . . within a reasonable time, inform the Department of Natural Resources Forest Service in writing of a change in address, telephone number, or employment” (State of Maryland 2002). Lack of complete contact information can result in the following negative impacts for TEs, clients of TE services, and regulators:

1. Limitation of customer communication in the event of a complaint;

2. Reduction of the TE’s ability to be found by a prospective customer; and,

3. Limitation of a regulator’s ability to advise of regulatory changes that may affect the TE.

However, many of the UnLTEs identified had incomplete contact information (Table 2) despite our consultation with multiple sources (online phone listings, SDAT BER, MD DNR complaint database) to obtain it. We found no, or incomplete, contact information for 42 (26.5%) UnLTEs. According to the MD DNR, unlicensed tree experts “ . . . will often give a cell  hone number and no other means of contact, thereby making it difficult to find them should a problem arise” (Maryland Department of Natural Resources 2005).

Table 2.  Availability of various types of contact information for unlicensed tree experts (UnLTEs) advertising online.

 

 

 

Availability of contact info for UnLTEs

No. of UnLTEs

Percentage of UnLTEs

 

 

 

Provided city, state, and ZIP code

152

96.2

Provided street address

95

60.13

Provided a web site address

48

30.38

Provided an e-mail address

32

20.25

Returned by US postal service as

 

 

undeliverable

31

19.62

Insufficient information for mailing

11

6.96



Table 3. Tally of all tree complaints, 1995 to 2005, by licensing status.

 

No. of complaints

Percentage guilty

Licensed tree expert type

 

 

Licensed tree expert

181

47

Unlicensed tree expert

274

49

Total

455

96



Two recipients responded in writing to assert that the provisions of House Bill 168 were not applicable to them. One advised MD DNR that they had  hired a licensee and were now in compliance and provided proof of the same. Another wrote: “We do not have any licensed tree experts on staff, nor do we advertise this type of service . . . the nature of our business is strictly that of a land clearing and grubbing contractor” (Blum 2005, pers. comm.). This was submitted despite the fact that according to their SuperPages.com business profile, their products and services are listed as “tree and root surgery” and their business name includes the phrase “ . . . Tree Service.”

For the period between state fiscal year (FY) 1995 and FY 2005, MD DNR received hundreds of complaints against TEs with findings of guilt against LTEs and UnLTEs in approximately equal number (see Table 3). Only 21 (13%) of the UnLTEs identified had ever been the subject of a complaint to the MD DNR regarding violation of the Tree Expert Law (Table 4); however, those same 21 UnLTEs had been the subject of 50 complaints for violating the TE law. One of the persons listed as being charged wit  an offense reserved for LTEs (negligence or wrongful conduct on the practice of tree care) was licensed at the time of that allegation but was no longer licensed at the time of this study. A small number of UnLTEs were alleged to be operating without a license on single occasions, whereas those charged with false advertising were, on average, two-time offenders. Those UnLTEs charged with both offenses appear, on average, to be offenders at a ratio of over 3:1, but in fact, a small number are responsible for most of the recidivism (one UnLTE was the subject of 13 different complaints [26% of the 50 complaints] involving one or both charges. This UnLTE recently became an LTE for the first time).

Corporations, limited liability companies, and limited partnerships are required to file a BER with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. Sole proprietorships and general partnerships are not required to file a BER but may file if they want to register a trade name (“doing business as” [DBA]).

The types of registered business entity status and their definitions are listed in Table 5. Slightly more than half (88 [56%]) of unlicensed firms advertising had BERs. Seventy firms (44.30%) had no BER. Among firms having a BER, BER status was almost equally divided between incorporated (40%) and unincorporated (39%) firms. Fifteen percent of firms with a BER were in forfeited status resulting from noncompliance.

Although Maryland’s population is concentrated in the Baltimore–Washington corridor, UnLTEs are fairly ubiquitous in small numbers across the state (Figure 1). The largest concentrations were found close to the borders of adjacent states that do not require TE licensing, in the northeast metropolitan area of Maryland’s largest city (Baltimore), and around the state capital (Annapolis).

CONCLUSIONS

Although Maryland has had TE licensing for 60 years, the majority of TEs (69.91%) advertising in online telephone listings are UnLTEs. A significant number of those UnLTEs (40%) did not provide full contact information,  including a street address, and we could not find a current address for over 25% of them. One of the two criminal charges possible under the Tree Expert Law is “false advertising or soliciting an unlicensed tree expert business” (District Court of Maryland 2003), and this study related specifically to TEs advertising their services. Still, the UnLTEs studied accounted for only 18.2% of complaints MD DNR received regarding UnLTEs during a 10 year period.

UnLTEs were found in approximately equal measure in one of three categories: incorporated, unincorporated, or unknown (sole proprietorships, general partnerships, or noncompliant).

UnLTEs are common in small numbers across the state with concentrations near the borders of adjacent states that do not require arborists’ licensing and in and around the primary urban areas.

Table 4. Summary of complaints against unlicensed tree experts advertising online by offense type.

 

No. of tree experts

Total no. of charges 

Charge

 

 

Operating a tree expert business without a license

4

4

Negligence or wrongful conduct on the practice of tree care

1

1

False advertising or soliciting an unlicensed tree expert business

5

10

 

 Operating a tree expert business without a license AND false advertising or soliciting an unlicensed tree expert business

11

35

Total

21

50


Table 5. Business Entity Registration (BER) type for unlicensed tree experts advertising online.

 

 

No. of firms

Percentage of firms

BER status

Definition

 

 

No BER

Not applicable

70

44.3

Incorporated

This corporation is legally active and present in Maryland.

35

22.15

Active

This unincorporated entity is legally active and present in Maryland.

34

21.52

Forfeited

For a Maryland entity, its existence has been ended by the state for some delinquency. For a non-Maryland entity, it means its authority to do business and legal presence here has been terminated. For a trade name, it means the filing has lapsed after 5 years and not been renewed.

13

8.23

Inactive

Not active

4

2.53

Revived

The entity is currently back to active status after having been forfeited in the past. The entity took the legal steps necessary to reinstate its existence.

2

1.27

Other

Canceled, consolidated, dissolved, merged, old name

0

0


RECOMMENDATIONS

To facilitate communication with existing clients, increase business opportunities with prospective clients, stay in compliance with regulators, and to remain abreast of regulatory changes, TEs should provide full contact information, including a physical address for the business. The change in the Tree Expert Law brought about by the passage of House Bill 168 should clarify the rules of practice, provide consumer protection , and ensure that TEs are properly insured. This latter point will provide protection for tree service workers as well as “level the playing field” for LTEs that at times have to fight being underbid by firms that can operate more cheaply because they have inadequate or no insurance and therefore less overhead. Although passage of this bill should facilitate improved enforcement by the MD DNR, the lack of a grandfathering provision in House Bill 168 left many firms with compliance issues resulting from the existing qualifications for licensure (2 years related college course work and 1 year under a licensee, or, for at least 5 years immediately before the date of application, to have been engaged continuously in practice as a tree expert with a licensed tree expert in Maryland or with an acceptable tree expert company in another state). UnLTEs would have to hire someone possessing a license, hire someone that qualifies to obtain a license, or find an LTE willing to allow the UnLTE to work under their license  o be in compliance. The costs associated with such arrangements are prohibitive to many UnLTEs, and the risks associated with such arrangements are prohibitive to many LTEs. MD DNR has been working with elected officials, LTEs, and UnLTEs to reach an equitable resolution and hopes that such a remedy will be passed when the General Assembly next convenes.

Acknowledgments. The author thanks Maryland’s tree care industry, including the Maryland Arborist Association, the Tree Care Industry Association, the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, the Association of Forest Conservancy District Boards/Maryland Urban and Community Forest Committee, and the Maryland Electric Reliability Tree Trimming Council for their partnership in Maryland’s Tree Expert licensing program.

LITERATURE CITED

American National Standards Institute (ANSI). 2000. American National Standard for Arboricultural Operations— Pruning, Repairing, Maintaining, and Removing Trees, and Cutting Brush—Safety Requirements, A SI Z133.1—2000. American National Standards Institute, New York, NY.

Ball, J., and S. Vosberg. 2003. How accidents happen and why: Arboricultural safety in the US. Tree Care Industry 14:50–54.

District Court of Maryland. 2003. DCAR XVIII. Natural Resources Fine Schedule. Administrative Office of the Courts. Annapolis, MD.

Galvin, M.F., and P. Becker. 1998. A survey of licensed tree experts in Maryland. Journal of Arboriculture 24:35–41.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources. 2005. DNR offers Marylanders tips on choosing a licensed tree expert: Recent law alters definition of tree expert to include tree removal.

Moe, B.R., and B. Frush. 2005. House Bill 168. Maryland General Assembly.

State of Maryland. 2002. Code of Maryland Regulations. Title 08, Subtitle 07, Chapter 07.1995. Annotated Code of Maryland, Business Regulation Article. Title 1, Subtitle 1.

Annotated Code of Maryland, Natural Resources Article. Title 5, Subtitle 16. Office of the Secretary of State, Division of State Documents. Annapolis, MD. 24 pp. ———. 2005.

Annotated Code of Maryland, Natural Resources Article. Title 5, Subtitle 4.

Michael F. Galvin Supervisor Urban & Community Forestry
Maryland Forest Service Maryland Department of Natural Resources
580 Taylor Avenue Annapolis, MD 21401, U.S
mgalvin@dnr.state.md.us


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