Among the 20 items Gov. Greg Abbott selected for the month when state lawmakers will return for a special session, one might wonder why a repeal of local tree ordinances made the cut.
The answer might be more personal than expected.
“I live in the Governor’s Mansion now,” Abbott said last week during a radio interview on WBAP 820. “But, before that, I had a house. I wanted to cut down a very common pecan tree in my yard. And the city of Austin told me, ‘No.’ I could not cut it down.
“And I had to pay money to the city of Austin to add more trees to my yard because I wanted to cut down one very common tree that was in a bad location.”
Abbott’s tree chagrin apparently dates to 2011, when two large pecan trees stood in an area of the Central Austin property he owned while he was attorney general. He built a new home in 2011 and a pool in 2012, according to city records.
Austin had just passed an ordinance the previous year protecting “heritage trees” — trees of certain species with trunk diameters of at least 24 inches. The measure bars property owners from removing such trees unless the tree poses a safety risk or prevents reasonable land use.
City records indicate officials granted Abbott permits in 2011 and 2012, allowing the construction, as long as the pecan trees’ “critical root zone” was protected.
In May 2012, however, a landscape contractor sought a permit on Abbott’s behalf to remove a pecan tree with a 24-inch diameter trunk, noting the tree was in poor condition and had lost about two-thirds of its canopy.
“Unpermitted impacts have occurred within the critical root zone,” a city arborist wrote.
The city granted the request to tear down the tree, but, as mitigation for the damage, required Abbott to plant new trees with trunk sizes totaling 24 inches.
Austin city officials said the process was standard, but didn’t know why Abbott said he had been told he couldn’t cut down a tree. City records show he was never denied permission to cut down a tree. Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other than the sick pecan tree, the city granted requests to remove a heritage elm tree in 2011 and a red oak and a magnolia in 2013 — all without denials or required mitigation. Permits indicate all three trees were in poor condition or dying.
Abbott criticizes tree ordinances
In January 2015, a few weeks before taking office as governor and four months before selling his Central Austin home, Abbott blasted tree ordinances as part of the “patchwork quilt” of local bans hurting the state.
“Texas is being Californianized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott told a 2015 conference hosted by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential think tank. “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”
Abbott repeated that comparison earlier this month, specifically singling out Austin for “trying to send Texas down the pathway of California.” The next day he called for a special legislative session to address 20 items, including a measure to prevent local governments from regulating what people can do with the trees on their own property.
State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who filed a bill this past session to overturn tree ordinances, last week asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on whether such ordinances violate the Texas Constitution.
Cities plan to defend tree ordinances
Austin officials note the city’s protection for large trees applies to only about 1 percent of trees in the city. Mature trees, in particular, provide shade that reduces energy costs, and mitigate flooding by stabilizing soil and creating a barrier to water.
“Trees are naturally-occurring infrastructure that save City taxpayers billions of dollars in economic services annually,” Austin’s Intergovernmental Relations Office said in a statement against the proposed 2017 anti-tree-ordinance measures in the Legislature.
Roughly 50 Texas cities have tree protection ordinances. West Lake Hills, with its abundantly treed residential areas, has a stringent and oft-enforced tree ordinance to maintain the character of the city, Mayor Linda Anthony has said.
“Our tree protection ordinances are a vital part of what our community said over decades that it wants,” Anthony told the Westlake Picayune in February while in the thick of the legislative session. “Part of Westlake’s identity is its trees.”
West Lake Hills residents must get a permit before removing trees, and in certain circumstances, homeowners are required to replace trees with native species. Anthony has said the city will continue to monitor any legislation that might affect tree protections during the special session.
In Pflugerville, trees 8 inches or more in diameter are protected except for several invasive species. That city’s tree ordinance prohibits removal of protected trees without city review and approval, and it sets guidelines and criteria on replacement trees.
Round Rock updated its tree ordinance in 2005 during a period of rapid growth and a variety of requests pertaining to trees. The ordinance includes rules for removing “monarch trees,” or trees that are 80 percent of the diameter of a species’ largest and healthiest tree within Round Rock.
Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan said Abbott’s call for a special legislative session is an attack on local control and a political move.
“It’s the most anti-local legislative session I’ve seen in the 14 years I’ve been involved in local politics,” he said. “It’s surprising to me because it’s always been a Republican theme that citizens closest to the people know what’s best in what they need.”