The owner of Harford tree removal company was found guilty in Harford County District Court last week of removing roadside trees without a permit. He was fined $260.
But Ronald G. Frank said that he didn't know about the Monday hearing so he didn't appear, and that he only removed the trees beside his business when he thought he had permission.
The court found that Frank, of Frank's East Coast Tree Experts in Joppatowne, removed about 90 trees in November from the right of way on Route 152 without a permit from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
However, Frank said that he had permission from his landlord, American Infrastructure, to clear the trees. Those trees had given thieves access to his stored equipment, such as chainsaws and ropes, he said.
Thieves had been a constant problem, "climbing the trees and jumping over top of the fence" since Frank moved to the property about 1 1/2 years ago, he said.
Now that the trees are gone, Frank said, he has added cameras, lights and guard dogs, and "I haven't had one problem since."
But American Infrastructure did not have the authority to authorize removal of those trees, according to Michael Galvin, the supervisor of urban and community forestry at the Department of Natural Resources.
"The trees are actually in the road right of way," Galvin said. As a result, Frank needed a $25 permit for their removal.
"This individual for 10 years had been a licensed tree expert," Galvin said. "This was not a process that he was unaware of."
Frank also said he didn't get the subpoena until after the court date, which Galvin conceded was possible because subpoenas are sent through the mail.
Galvin said DNR had previous concerns about Frank's business, including consumer complaints in the past few years that East Coast Tree Experts didn't perform work as stipulated or caused damage to trees by improper work.
Frank blamed personnel issues for those grievances and said that the employees to blame had since left his business.
He added that Galvin had gone out of his way in pursuing East Coast Tree Experts, an allegation Galvin denied.
Consumer complaints against Frank led to a 10-day and a 20-day suspension of Frank's tree expert license last year.
Although Frank, who had held a license since 1992, decided not to renew it this year, the Office of Administrative Hearings nonetheless ordered a one-year suspension of Frank's license, from Jan. 23 this year to Jan. 23 next year.
In Maryland, tree-care providers need a license for pruning or caring for trees, but no license is needed to remove trees.
Right of way issues are some of the most common tree-care legal thickets, said Mark Garvin, a spokesman for the Tree Care Industry Association.
"Very few homeowners realize there's a right of way," Garvin said. "Consumers, they don't know that they don't own their land right down to the street. And they'll pay $1,500 to remove a dead tree that they don't even own."
Garvin also added that Maryland's licensing system is rare: Few states license tree experts. Among those that do, "Maryland is much more detailed than other states," he said.
Maryland tree experts must pass an exam, have previous experience and carry insurance.
Frank said that he will continue to fight the charges, and he is trying to get a new court date.
"I want my day in court," he said. "I've got to stand behind my name and my company."
Frank's landlord, American Infrastructure, did not return calls seeking comment.