What’s Going On With The Trees?

Big Tree

As we shared last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott is bringing our state lawmakers back to the Capitol building next month for a special session, focused on a wide array of agenda items (from the bathroom bill to school finance).

In Austin, one of the special session agenda items that has garnered the most attention is all about trees. 

“Some local governments, like the City of Austin, are doing everything they can to overregulate,” Abbott said during a press conference announcing the special session. “I want legislation that does three things. One – prevent cities from micromanaging what property owners do with trees on their private land.”

Today, we thought we’d dig a little deeper into this issue. What is going on here?

In order to protect trees within the city, Austin (as well as about 50 other cities in Texas) has several rules in place that prevent trees from being cut down. Currently, you need to get the city’s permission to cut down a tree on your property that is 19 inches thick or larger. If the city grants you permission to cut the tree down, then you have to plant a new tree in its place or pay into a tree-planting fund.

Austin also has a much stricter heritage tree ordinance, which prevents property owners from cutting down certain tree varieties that are 24 inches thick or greater, unless they can prove the tree is diseased, a safety risk, or preventing a reasonable use of the land.

As several media outlets are now reporting, Abbot has had his own run-ins with Austin’s tree ordinances, starting a few years back whilst doing renovation work on his home. He wanted to cut down a tree. The City of Austin gave him permission, but in exchange, he had to plant new trees.

In describing the incident to a Dallas radio station, Abbot said that, “I believe the city of Austin, and any other municipality that has these rules on trees is hijacking your property and we are not going to allow it in the state of Texas.” He called the ordinances “socialistic” and claimed that homeowners don’t own their trees, but rather “Austin, Texas owns your trees.”

So why do we have these ordinances?
The City of Austin has defended its tree ordinances many times over the years, explaining that they help to protect a public resource that provides a huge benefit back to Austinites. A study from the US Forest Service found that Austin’s trees (on both private and public land) provide about $34 million in services and benefits to the community by removing pollutants from the air, capturing stormwater runoff, and reducing energy costs by providing shade for buildings.

But what about local control?
Local control has been the buzzword lately as Texans debate how much power local governments versus the state government should have in creating policy. Many local politicians have called out Abbott and the state Legislature for attacking Austin and interfering with “local control”

However, in an editorial for the Austin American-Statesman, Austin-area Representative Paul Workman fought back against those accusations, saying that, “Abbott’s agenda isn’t Austin-bashing; it is liberty-protecting.” 

He also said that when it comes to local control, he uses four criteria for determining whether or not the state should step in. These include instances when:

  • An ordinance in one city affects the residents of another city
  • Ordinances differ too much from city to city, creating confusion when traveling from one to another
  • An ordinance has the potential to hurt the state’s economy
  • An ordinance interferes with the individual liberties of Texans, including their private property rights

Austin City Council Member Alison Alter fought back against this idea that Austin’s local government is interfering with personal liberties, sharing on Facebook an article from Business Insider which named Austin as the number one city “where everyone wants to live right now.”

“Another interesting irony of this crazy political year… ” Alter wrote. “At least I am not surprised by this news and am happy to represent the people that help make Austin a great place to live. Imagine what we could do for our community with the governor’s support.”

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