Fight over private property tree removal heats up

Governor Greg Abbott is putting momentum behind a law that would curb cities' abilities to regulate tree removal. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.
Governor Greg Abbott is putting momentum behind a law that would curb cities' abilities to regulate tree removal. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that he has tapped State Sen. Bob Hall and State Rep. Paul Workman to write a law that would “prevent cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land.”

Austin city leaders responded to this announcement saying they opposed the law and felt that other issues should take priority.

During his announcement of the special session, Gov. Abbott identified curbing municipal tree removal regulations as one of the 20 items to be added to the special session agenda.

“Tree removal is important in Texas because we are a conservative state and we believe in people’s individual liberties and part of that is private property rights,” said Rep. Workman, whose district covers western and southern Travis County. “And so we believe that people should have that right to remove a tree off their own property, the government shouldn’t be interfering with their property and their ability to do what they choose.”

Rep. Workman, R-Austin, said he had been working on legislation like this for several sessions and has been speaking to the governor about this legislation since the special session was announced.

“It’s certainly a compressed timeline, it’s certainly a lot of work to do,” said Rep. Workman, who anticipates beginning the special session on July 18.

This law would target municipalities with tree removal laws, like the city of Austin. Kieth Mars, aborist for the city of Austin, said he is opposed to this legislation.

“We as a city and across the nation we see trees as infrastructure, they shade homes, they filter sidewalks, trees provide all these benefits, all these infrastructure-type services, if we didn’t have trees, who would treat storm water and keep things cooler? We see that as an absolute necessity for a safe and comfortable environment,” Mars said.

“These trees take decades to grow and we just need to give a little extra thought when we are trying to build on a lot that’s been there a lot longer than we have been and will probably be there longer than we are,” said City Council Member Leslie Pool.

“I think as a council member our regulations and our processes are very accommodating and reasonable and easy to follow,” Council Member Pool added. She cited an instance where Gov. Abbott lived in the city of Austin prior to moving into the governor’s mansion and had to pay the city of Austin for chopping down a pecan tree in his yard, as he explained with frustration to WBAP. “That seems to be informing his disaffection with trees generally,” Pool said.

Mayor Steve Adler was incredulous that the governor was taking up this agenda item. “Really? We’re going to pull people back into special session to do trees?” Adler said, visibly aggravated.

“I have no idea why it is the legislature and the governor are not focusing on the broken school finance system because that’s what people in this community and across the state want the legislature to focus on,” Mayor Adler said.

School finance reform is also on Gov. Abbott’s agenda for the special session, though Mayor Adler said that he is not aware of any efforts to address the problem yet, only to discuss it.

Tree Removal in the city of Austin

Keith Mars explained that the Protected Tree Ordinance of 1983 and the Heritage Tree Ordinance of 2010 set up the criteria for which trees can be removed. Trees which pose an imminent hazard or are dead or diseased can be removed for free.

Anyone planning a new development in Austin needs to show the trees on their development plan, Mars explained. On applications that would require the removal of trees, the city requires that new trees are planted back on the property. Inspection staff then visit the property to make sure developers have planted the trees.

Mars said that the city has issued 50,000 building permits in the last 3 years and a majority of those have had some type of tree review. The city reviewed over 5,000 tree removal applications in 2016 alone, Mars said.

A city of Austin release in March cited a USDA report which found that the tree cover in Austin reduces the city’s annual energy costs by an estimated $18.9 million per year and reduces storm water runoff by an estimated 65 million cubic feet per year.

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