House sends Abbott tree bill similar to measure he vetoed in June

On a 119-3 vote, the Texas House Tuesday gave final approval to a measure requiring cities and counties to allow tree-planting in lieu of fees when trees are cut down, sending a bill to Gov. Greg Abbott that’s remarkably like one he vetoed in June.

Back then, Abbott said that the assumption cities can charge such fees gave license to “the municipal micromanagement of private property.” When he called the special session, he asked for a bill outlawing all local tree ordinances.

Those measures languished in committees while the House instead passed a similar bill allowing tree planting to supplant mitigation fees again. The Senate tried to strengthen that measure to be more in line with Abbott’s vision by adding provisions saying cities can’t regulate trees outside of city limits but within their extraterritorial jurisdictions and can’t disallow cutting of trees under 10 inches in diameter.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, rejected those changes as not germane to the bill and returned it to the Senate. Shortly after midnight Tuesday, senators removed the extraterritorial jurisdiction provision and replaced the 10-inch provision with one saying cities cannot charge fees on the removal of trees under that size.

The 10-inch-minimum to charge fees is one provision that’s different from the tree bill vetoed earlier this year. The current bill also outlines more specifically how much someone can offset fees with planting. It says individual homeowners can eliminate fees entirely by planting new trees, that nonresident owners and residential developers can offset at least 50 percent of the fees and that owners of commercial properties can offset them by at least 40 percent.

At least 90 Texas communities have ordinances regulating trees in some form, but Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Nederland, one of the bill’s authors, said he only knew of one that involved trees smaller than 10 inches. Austin’s protects trees of certain species with trunk diameters of at least 24 inches and requires mitigation for those with diameters of at least 19 inches.

The back-and-forth has taken the bill in several different directions over the course of the special session before coming back nearly to its original version.

“Night of the living dead — it has returned,” Phelan joked before the vote.

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