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Licensed to landscape

September 13, 2015 -  By

XYZ Landscaping Company

Should states require landscape contractor licensing? We look 
at the pros and cons.

In a perfect world, Greg Winchel would be all for licensure in the green industry. The owner of Winchel Irrigation based in Grandville, Mich., sees the benefits: increased professionalism, consumer protection, the ability to raise prices and more.
But the world isn’t perfect, so he’s torn.

“Personally, the less the government is involved in my business, the better,” he says. “But on the flip side, if licensing was really monitored and the guys that aren’t doing things correctly were penalized and made to do things right, that would ultimately make our industry a better place to be a business owner.”

About a decade ago, Winchel was involved with the Michigan Irrigation Association board prior to it merging with the Michigan Nursery & Landscape Association. The board unsuccessfully worked to bring irrigation contractor licensing to the state, which Winchel says probably worked out for the best.

“Does licensing make us a more professional industry? On the surface, it might,” he says. “You have a number to stamp on your truck and your letterhead, but is it really going to achieve the objectives? 
Probably not.”

Winchel is not alone in his uncertainty about licensure in the green industry. Opinions vary by region, the services you’re addressing and, no doubt, personal politics.

Few people have problems with requiring licensing for pesticide applicators. When it comes to other areas of the landscape business, though, there’s little consensus on what, if anything, should be regulated and at what level. For example, only a handful of states explicitly license landscape contractors, although others may do so under home improvement or other contractor regulations. On the irrigation side of the business, four states require an irrigation contracting license, and five states require a license that isn’t solely specific to irrigation (it may be under plumbing or landscape contracting, for example). Florida offers a voluntary license that exempts licensees from local irrigation contracting licenses.

And where there is licensure, the requirements are all over the map.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) supports the continued licensing of pesticide applicators for safety and federal compliance reasons. The Irrigation Association (IA) supports licensing irrigation professionals for health and human safety reasons, but only in regions where the state’s irrigation industry embraces licensing, according to John Farner, government and public affairs director for the IA.

“When it comes to licensing in other specialties like irrigation and landscape installation and maintenance, it’s more of a mixed bag,” says NALP Director of Government Relations Tom Delaney. “NALP is committed to 
professionalism in the industry through certifications like Landscape Industry Certified where people are required to demonstrate their knowledge, but having a variety of different licensing requirements in different jurisdictions could make it difficult for companies on many levels.”

Such burdens—and costs—are typical objections to occupational licensing in general. A 2012 report by the Institute for Justice (IJ) found occupational licenses take nine months to obtain and cost applicants about $200 on average.

Proponents of occupational licensing cite consumer protection, health and safety as the major pros to licensure. Those in favor of green industry licensure, specifically, also cite the need to raise the industry’s professionalism to the level of plumbers, electricians and other licensed tradesmen.

In the landscape industry, licensure opponents say the regulations add cost without adding value to the companies or the consumer.

The IJ report also points to 
inconsistency among states as 
evidence licenses aren’t necessary. “If, as licensure proponents often claim, a license is required to protect the public health and safety, one would expect more consistency,” the report says.

Those in favor

To understand why contractor licensing is necessary, you just have to watch one episode of Spike TV’s reality TV show “Catch a Contractor,” says Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA).

The show features funnyman Adam Carolla, a former master 
carpenter, teaming up with a builder and private investigator to seek retribution for homeowners duped by unscrupulous contractors.

“All of the episodes show projects that are dangerous situations (for homeowners) because of bad work by various unlicensed contractors,” Giarde says. “We support licensing because it benefits the consumer.”

In California, the Contractors State License Board licenses contractors and regulates the construction industry. People who perform construction work on a project where the combined cost for labor and materials is $500 or more must have a contractor’s license. The C-27 classification specifically addresses landscape contractors. Mowing, edging, leaf blowing and shrub pruning do not require a construction license.

Licensing is also a boon to employees in the industry, Giarde says. For example, licensed contractors have to carry workers’ compensation insurance, pay taxes and pay unemployment insurance.

“When workers are laid off or injured on the job at an unlicensed contractor, they have nowhere to turn,” she says.

In North Carolina, another state that specifically licenses landscape contractors, the law changed on Aug. 1 from a title act to a title and practice act (see “Licensure defined”). The North Carolina Landscape Contractors’ Registration Board, established in 1975, became the North Carolina Landscape Contractors’ Licensing Board (NCLCLB).

Before the change, the board had little enforcement power when consumer complaints came in about poor workmanship or fraud, says Scott Makey, owner of Old Mill Stream Nursery & Landscaping and chairman of the NCLCLB. After conducting an investigation, the board could revoke a contractor’s title, but he or she could continue to operate.

Over the last decade, licensure advocates and industry trade associations pushed for a practice act, and the North Carolina Green Industry Council presented the need for a license to the state general assembly. The process took nearly four years. It was enacted on Aug. 1, 2014, and went into effect this year.

Consumer protection is the primary benefit, Makey says, though the statute has benefits for contractors too.

For starters, it eliminates a conflict with the state’s general contractor statute. Before, landscape contractors engaging in projects more than $30,000 were required to be licensed general contractors.

Makey points out that licenses aren’t required for landscape projects less than $30,000, although he suspects many landscape architects and municipalities will require bidders to be licensed regardless of project value.

The $30,000 figure is probably too high, Makey says.

“There are a lot of consumers who still have to live by the ‘buyer beware’ philosophy,” he says. “If you hire an unlicensed contractor and your small patio or retaining wall fails, you have no recourse other than an attorney and the Better Business Bureau.”

Andrew Stepp, owner of Premium Organic Landscapes in Asheville, N.C., is in favor of the licensing legislation. In fact, he believes the public could benefit from a more strenuous process. For example, he’d like to see a license requirement for anyone providing installation, maintenance or irrigation services.

“If you’re carrying a business name, in my opinion you should have to have a license,” he says. “It would cut down on the Joe Schmo with a lawn mower and a truck coming in and underbidding because they’re not well into the business, so they don’t have insurance or carry a pesticide license.”

He’d also like to see enforcement stepped up and clarified. It’s a detail that’s remained fuzzy as the licensing board gets off the ground.

Stepp says he hopes enforcement is better than the state’s pesticide licensing enforcement.

“There’s one pesticide inspector who covers from Raleigh (in the middle of the state) to the end of the state that borders Tennessee,” he says. “I’ve seen him once in the three years I’ve been in business. It requires way more manpower to enforce the licenses effectively.”

He’s not the only one who feels this way. In fact, lack of enforcement is one of the main concerns of licensing opponents.

Those opposed

Winchel explains his position, as it relates to a hypothetical irrigation licensing requirement in Michigan.

“How much would the revenue stream be for an irrigation licensing board in the state of Michigan?” he says. “Are they going to hire a dedicated staff to inspect irrigation contractors, making sure there’s a licensed contractor doing the work? If they’re not, the only thing it’s going to do is raise my costs, and I’m going to have to jump through all these hoops. And my competitors who don’t run legal businesses aren’t going to do it.”

Therein lies the problem for most opponents. The people who need the standards the most are skirting the existing laws, they say, so why create more regulations for law-abiding 
business owners?

Another con, Winchel says, is “inviting the government into your business.” Others would say it’s a “regulate or be regulated” world, so contractors should get involved in promoting licensure as a form of self regulation, since licensing bodies are typically made up of industry practitioners.

“The landscape industry is going to be regulated whether it wants to or not,” the IA’s Farner says, pointing to the public focus on turfgrass and plant material use, water use, chemical inputs and carbon emissions. He’s also the former director of legislative relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, the predecessor to the national association AmericanHort. “The industry needs to be out in front; otherwise, it’s going to be done for us and to us.”

That was Winchel’s thought when he was involved with his state irrigation association’s exploration of licensing years ago. But now he questions that logic, saying once there is a law, government officials could arbitrarily change the laws based on special interests.

Paul Opdyke, co-owner and general manager at Serene Surroundings in Plymouth, Mich., is also opposed to landscape contractor licensing. His take is licensing adds cost to business owners, but it doesn’t “add value” for clients.

“I just don’t see clients concerned about it,” he says. “Therefore, why would they want to incur additional costs?”

Keeping up with his company’s pesticide licensing alone takes several days of administrative time over the course of a year, Opdyke says. Adding additional licenses would add more costs that would be passed on to customers.

Although, Opdyke doesn’t have a problem with the 
regulation of building structures due to safety concerns.

“I’d hope that landscape contractors aren’t out there building front porches, back porches or gravity walls without the proper building license,” he says. “That should absolutely be regulated.”

But he doesn’t see the need to license landscape maintenance activities, building smaller items like patios or irrigation—outside of installing backflow preventers.

“What I feel adds value are
 certifications from manufacturers or from state and national associations,” he says.
For example, Unilock’s Authorized Contractor program has rigid requirements and verification. Opdyke estimates a Unilock territory manager inspects at least 20 of his company’s jobs throughout the year to ensure they’re built to the manufacturer’s standards.

“The state would absolutely not do that,” he says.

Winchel compares it to a driver’s license.

“Even though you went to driver’s ed and passed the test, is everybody a good driver? No,” he says. “But at least we have police out there watching the roads and ticketing bad drivers.”

Licensure defined

Licensure: A state restricting a practice or the use of an occupational title that requires a license.

Practice act: A type of licensure that requires a professional to obtain a license before legally performing a certain activity.

Title act: A type of licensure that restricts the use of an occupational title to licensees. Others can perform the activity but are not legally permitted to use a certain title.

Professional body or licensing board: Typically composed of practitioners and stakeholders who oversee the licensure applications and may determine requirements, such as experience, education and examinations.

Registration: A term that’s sometimes synonymous with licensure; it’s often associated with title acts.

Certification: A term that’s sometimes synonymous with licensure but is typically a voluntary qualification and not a legal requirement.


Art: © Skrbic/acprints/Romet6

Marisa Palmieri

About the Author:

Marisa Palmieri is an experienced Green Industry editor who's won numerous awards for her coverage of the landscape and golf course markets from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA), the Press Club of Cleveland and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). In 2007, ASBPE named her a Young Leader. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, cum laude, from Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.

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