All trees have value. Sometimes more than we think.

Take this example: A builder uses an aerial view to determine property boundaries instead of paying for a survey. By the time he’s finished clearing the lot, he’s encroached 20 feet into the neighbor’s property. The tree care company he hired removed several large, valuable trees in the process. The neighbor receives triple indemnity due to the builder’s belligerence when confronted with his mistake. The payout is well into five figures.

How about this one: A large contractor is hired to build a new school. The crews clear the site and push the trees into a pile to be burned. The fire gets away from them, and the neighboring woods burn down as a result. The fire almost reaches adjacent homes. Firefighters have to spray down nearby propane tanks to keep them cool. Fortunately, no one is hurt, but the woods are lost. The neighboring property owners organize and decide to sue the contractor for negligence. The judge requires a price tag on the lost trees and the loss of real estate value to the homes whose privacy screen is gone. The neighborhood association hires me to appraise the damages. The price tag for the losses amounts to six figures.

In another example: A property owner has the trees removed on an adjacent landowner’s hillside to allow for a better view of the lake. When the neighbor comes home from work, he walks next door to complain and ask what’s going on. The individual with the new and improved view, far from being sympathetic, says, “You’ll never miss those trees. Besides, it increases your property value, too.” Incredulous, the neighbor sues. His attorney hires me to appraise the trees. The attorney also wants to know how much the property value increased. When those price tags are added up, the judge decides to, again, tack on triple indemnity to make the penalty hurt.

Trees have a financial value. Mountainsides have a financial value. Oceanfront properties have a financial value. Scenic streams, orchards in full bloom—one might go so far as to say sunrises, sunsets and even the moon and stars—are worth a great deal of money. Trees only increase their value.

I don’t normally like to think of natural wonders through the prism of a dollar sign. When I do, they become distorted. Something special is lost. My tendency, instead, is to just enjoy the view. However, on occasion, I am asked to place a price tag to the losses suffered when a hillside, stream or lakefront is cleared of trees by mistake.

In another instance: A tree service is asked by its client to remove some trees at what appears to be the corner of the property. The client wants to improve the view of Lake Michigan from his deck. The arborist presumes the trees are owned by the client. Unfortunately, they’re not. Unknown to the arborist when he sold the job, the two neighbors are on terrible terms with each other, and his client almost certainly knew he was asking the arborist to remove trees that were not his. The tree trespass is the last straw for the actual property owner who says she has little sympathy for the tree service, despite its pleas of being duped. The tree service and the client are both sued.

I could recount several more stories. We don’t tend to think of mountain sides or streams or soil, and even something as innocent as a pleasant view, in monetary terms. There are times when we should.

It is imperative to err on the side of caution when it comes to property lines. Ignorance carries little weight with the courts. It is also critically important to think through the consequences of removing trees that help hold a hillside in place, screens the shopping mall from sight for a neighbor, or shelters wildlife or valuable understory plants even when the trees are on the client’s property. If your equipment runs rough-shod through a yard or you remove the wrong tree or damage that rose bush—everything has a cost attached to it.

One last example. One to take to heart for contractors—including tree services.

A homeowner on a shared private drive takes it upon himself to “improve” the drive. His excavator carves out the wooded hillside to widen the lane. He pushes the trees and stumps down the slope to save costs. The hillside starts to erode. The soil eventually finds its way into a pond adding several feet of silt that kills the fish and aquatic vegetation. The intimate feel to the private drive is totally lost for the rest of the homeowners who share the private drive and now stare at the underside of stumps every time they leave or return home. The real estate appraisers, the tree appraisers, the natural resource experts and the legal fees accrued to settle the whole matter, plus time lost in two years of legal battles sinks the excavator and forces the perpetrator to sell his home to pay off his neighbors.

The tree care industry has a reputation for rugged workmen doing dangerous work that often requires heavy equipment. Being sensitive does not top the list of character traits that come to mind when the public thinks about “tree guys.” Be that as it may, the general public still expects a tree service to respect property rights and empathize with homeowners who think his or her land is priceless. Most of the lawsuits I’m hired for are the direct result of plaintiffs feeling disrespected and not listened to.

Be careful. Listen closely to landowners. Ask questions about the neighbors. Talk to them, too. And, by all means, be sure about property lines.

Removing trees has a big impact on land. There’s almost always a consequence. Know what those consequences are before beginning a job. When there’s a mistake, the tree service often is the first to be sued. Make sure you don’t need someone like me to assess the damages.

For more about trees and the law and tree appraisals, I recommend reading “Tree Law Cases in the USA” by Lew Bloch; the Guide for Plant appraisal, 9th Edition, an International Society of Arboriculture publication; or contact the American Society of Consulting Arborists for a plant appraiser nearest you.

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