When Gov. Greg Abbott ordered a special session of the state Legislature to convene next month, he told lawmakers to tackle hot-button issues like abortion, property taxes and school vouchers. And then there were the trees.
“Some local governments, like the City of Austin, are doing everything they can to overregulate,” he said Tuesday. “I want legislation that does three things. One: prevent cities from micromanaging what property owners do with trees on their private land.”
It seemed like a strange footnote in a legislative agenda packed with divisive proposals. So what’s this about?
“We have really two ordinances here that really protect trees,” says Keith Mars, an arborist with the City of Austin. “We have the Protect a Tree ordinance that was adopted in 1983, and then we have the Heritage Tree ordinance that was adopted unanimously by council in 2010.”
The rules regulate what trees you can cut down after they’ve reached 19 inches in diameter. Certain species greater than 24 inches are even harder to chop down.
Proponents say the city’s tree preservation rules enhance local quality of life. Critics argue the rules inhibit smart development, increase construction costs and may increase fire risk.
But the opposition from some state lawmakers seems more ideological. The issue centers on property rights, a trend on full display when Tea Party Republican state Rep. Jonathan Stickland told a landscape architect that her support of tree rules “scares" him "so much.”
“OK, well why do people live in HOAs?” Elizabeth McGreevy replied, referring to homeowner associations.
Her point: People agree to abide by local laws all the time. And cities, like Austin, have decided these rules are in the public good.
Mars says trees help by improving the environment, “filtering our air, filtering our storm water, shading our houses, as we all know it gets incredibly hot here. There are billions and billions of dollars of services that these trees provide every day with very little assistance.”
Around 50 Texas cities have some form of tree rules on the books. Regardless what happens to them, the debate over trees this summer will likely be seen as part of a larger debate that’s grown in recent years –between state and local regulation.