Local tree ordinances could be cut in Texas

Deborah Cannon
Rainer Jones, left, and Eliot Albertson, both 7, swing on a tire hanging from a tree in South Austin last month.

In January 2015, a few weeks before taking office as governor and four months before selling his Central Austin home, Gov. Greg 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 this month, 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, asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on whether such ordinances violate the Texas Constitution.

Roughly 50 Texas cities have tree protection ordinances, including Round Rock, Pflugerville, Lakeway, West Lake Hills and other Central Texas cities. Like Austin’s tree ordinance, many define protected trees and require permits or another process before removing them.

Austin’s ordinance requires landowners to get city permission to cut down any trees with diameters of more than 19 inches and prohibits removing “heritage trees” — certain species with diameters of at least 24 inches — unless the tree is a safety risk or is preventing reasonable land use.

From 2014 to 2016, the city preserved 43,000 trees, approved removing 23,000 and required the planting of 24,000 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 repealing tree ordinances and his other priorities in the special legislative session are an attack on local control.

“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.”

Emsud Horozovic, who has served as Round Rock’s forestry manager for 17 years, said the city’s tree ordinance has never been controversial, and requests to remove monarch trees are scarce.

“There are months where we get none,” he said of requests to remove trees. “We don’t have many monarch trees to begin with. Our tree population is younger.”

Horozovic described the creation of a local tree ordinance as an organic process that mirrors each city.

“It’s a living document that represents the town,” he said. “(The city) should be able to make a decision on how our town looks. We don’t want everything to be just concrete and sidewalks.”

In Pflugerville, trees 8 inches or more in diameter are protected except for several invasive species. The tree ordinance prohibits removal of protected trees without city review and approval, and it sets guidelines and criteria on how to replace them.

Pflugerville Mayor Victor Gonzales said he doesn’t see the tree ordinance as being controversial, though he remarked on how commercial developers at times cut down trees and “ask for forgiveness later.”

“But overall we don’t have a real issue with any blatant tree removal,” he said. “We haven’t had any real big projects in a heavily forested area, because most of it has been open space.”

Gonzales said he hopes Abbott’s agenda isn’t political. He noted the importance of a balanced ecological system within the city. “It’s essential for the natural landscape for any community,” he said.

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,” she told the Westlake Picayune in February while in the thick of the legislative session. “Part of Westlake’s identity is its trees.”

The city of San Marcos has tree ordinances that primarily preserve certain species of trees and protect trees on new developments, such as a provision that requires trees near construction sites to be covered by a fence, frame or box.

“We value the trees in the city of San Marcos,” said Mayor John Thomaides. “And I think we, as a council and as a community, would just like the ability to have some local liberty on issues like common-sense tree ordinances.”

Smithville is a “Tree City USA” — a moniker given by the Arbor Day Foundation to recognize a city’s commitment to its urban tree canopy — and has a tree ordinance and a city tree board. Mayor Scott Saunders called Abbott’s push for tree ordinance repeal ridiculous.

“We, the citizens of this community, know what’s best for our town, and more regulations from our legislators is not what we need,” Saunders said.

While Elgin doesn’t have a tree ordinance, it does have requirements and restrictions regarding trees within its landscape ordinance. Those requirements are typical of most Texas cities, Elgin City Manager Tom Mattis said.

“I am very concerned, as all Texans should be, about the governor’s anti-local government agenda,” Mattis said.

While the issue likely will come under strong debate in the special session, Lakeway City Manager Steve Jones said he doubted cities would get very many chances to make themselves heard.

“It looks like this Legislature, in particular the Senate, feels like the state can develop a one-size-fits-all rule or regulation, and I don’t think that’s right,” he said.

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