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Appraising Trees and Plants: A Matter of Emphasis

By: Joe Samnik
Tel: 727-410-5797
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A couple of decades ago I hung a picture on my office wall. I hung it there at the beginning of my career in appraising trees and plants. The caption under the picture reads, "Do you want your assessment to show how much your tree is worth, or how little it is worth - it's a matter of emphasis". Setting aside the naïveté of the statement, the question remains the matter of emphasis in the approach used to valuation - and the ethical repercussions which ensue.

I took the picture while in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my then, new bride. In the foreground of the picture is a tree dead as a doornail, but nonetheless majestically embracing with its gray and white shimmering limbs and branches, an endless wave of green mountains and babbling brooks. Most of my thoughts in those days surrounded my compulsive necessity to put a value on every tree I looked at, much to the chagrin of my new bride. Undaunted by her insistence to live in the moment, I would sit in silence while secretly appraising the value of trees. This no doubt pleased her as she substituted my reality with her beliefs that I was in fact not compulsively appraising trees but rather enjoying the moment.

So the question remains: Did this tree have a value? To be certain it was dead. Perhaps it had a negative value equating into the cost of removal. But the tree made a dramatic statement as it related to architecture, aesthetics, and function. The latter marked a little-known trailhead which my bride and I traveled upon over the years.

If this tree were located in our populated cities, towns or counties it no doubt would be adjudicated a hazard and removed; thus, the negative value. But it wasn't located in heavily populated areas which were frequented by travelers on foot or in car, (save the occasional trespass by two newlyweds). Then it would come to my mind the appraisal approach for its architecture or aesthetics. What of its contribution? It's placement? Would anyone really miss one dead tree in a countless biomass of millions?

Some years later a co-worker barged into my office screaming expletives regarding the appraisal report of a tree by an appraiser on the other side of a lawsuit. It seemed that the subject appraiser included in her report a picture of a home with no trees to be found. My illustrious co-worker had in her report a picture of the same home nearly hidden by trees (which were located on a portion of the residential land). How could the appraiser on the other side be so unethical as to not include a photograph of the home at an angle which showed the trees, queried my college. How indeed, I replied, could you have not? Was one appraiser conducting herself in an unethical manner? Who was right and who was wrong? It's a matter of emphasis.

Plaintiffs and defendants come from a place of emphasis - and so do the attorneys who represent them. And that is as it should be; at least it's the system in our great country. The former placement of emphasis is grounded in emotion, the latter in legal training of representation of those emotions, typically in the form of motions in the trying of a case.

The problem with placing a value from a place of emphasis is advocacy. Advocacy may be found rooted in ethics. Ethics, along with honor and integrity, are the greatest and single most important attributes a plant appraiser (or anyone else) can have - especially when the matter enters into the realm of dispute which typically leads to sworn testimony. When appraising from a point of emphasis, one must take great care not to become an advocate. The only accepted advocacy is the one for your opinion, not the emotions which become a part of the assessment process. As importantly, if appraising from a point of emphasis one must prepare for defending their approach to value. There are ways to do this. Formulas come to mind. Formulas lend themselves to a seemingly legitimate approach of placing emphasis when appraising a plant or tree; however, formulas are not without their significant problems. Another caveat with appraising from a place of emphasis is that your approach to value changes from situation to situation. This is a very bad thing. When discovered, usually under oath, it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain the legitimate role of a fact provider to the Trier of these facts. Can anyone spell "impeachment"?

As the years have passed since I took that picture of the dead tree which still hangs in my office, I have long abandoned the notion of legitimately testifying or basing my opinion of value from a point of emphasis. Recently my bride and I took a hiatus from our careers and traveled back to the Great Smoky Mountains in search of a dead tree which marked a little-known trailhead. The dead tree was gone, and despite our best efforts we never found the trailhead.

So the question comes full circle: Did the dead tree still pictured on my wall have a value? It's a matter of emphasis.

Joe Samnik, is an Arborist Certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. Mr. Samnik has over 46 years of practice encompassing tree issues, arboreal and horticultural consulting, dispute resolution, tree and plant appraisals and expert witness in tree and landscape issues.

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