Prop­erty rights are sa­cred, and that means felling trees

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS -

Trees are tim­ber — a nat­u­ral re­source that be­longs to pri­vate prop­erty own­ers in the same way as a back­yard gar­den. It would be ab­surd to re­quire a gov­ern­ment per­mit to har­vest your pep­pers and pota­toes — yet many Texas cities strictly reg­u­late trees on your land.

Over­reg­u­la­tion of landown­ers and their abil­ity to trim and re­move trees is the fo­cus of a ma­jor prop­erty rights fight at the Capi­tol. And while most rec­og­nize the ob­vi­ous — that pri­vate prop­erty own­ers should con­trol what they pos­sess — some are do­ing their best to muddy the wa­ters.

Part of the ab­sur­dity of this is­sue lies in how trees are treated dif­fer­ently than other nat­u­ral re­sources — even dif­fer­ent plants. You can pick flow­ers from your front yard for a ta­ble ar­range­ment, though cut­ting down a tree for fire­wood vi­o­lates these tree or­di­nances.

“Our tree pro­tec­tion or­di­nances are a vi­tal part of what our com­mu­nity said over decades that it wants. Part of West­lake’s iden­tity is its trees,” de­clared West Lake Hills Mayor Linda An­thony re­cently, whose west Austin en­clave is home to one of the most re­stric­tive reg­u­la­tory regimes in the state.

These sorts of col­lec­tivist-tinged ar­gu­ments are, of course, wrong. Philo­soph­i­cally speak­ing, the wants of a com­mu­nity do not trump the free­doms of an in­di­vid­ual. No gov­ern­ment — even if its iden­tity is rooted in trees — is big­ger than a per­son’s nat­u­ral rights as en­shrined in the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.

Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, mu­nic­i­pal tree-cut­ting or­di­nances are more than a nui­sance; they ef­fec­tively seize the prop­erty im­pacted by the reg­u­la­tion. If a landowner wishes to re­move a tree in or­der to con­struct an im­prove­ment — such as a back­yard swing set — and can­not, that area has been taken by the gov­ern­ment with­out any com­pen­sa­tion. This di­rectly con­tra­dicts Ar­ti­cle I, Sec­tion 17, of the Texas Con­sti­tu­tion, which pro­vides that “no per­son’s prop­erty shall be taken, dam­aged or de­stroyed for or ap­plied to pub­lic use with­out ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion be­ing made.”

The con­cept that pri­vate prop­erty rights in­clude own­er­ship of the nat­u­ral re­sources con­tained within dates back to the very phi­los­o­phy of pri­vate prop­erty own­er­ship it­self. John Locke wrote: “As much land as a man, tills, plants, im­proves, cul­ti­vates, and can use the prod­uct of, so much is his prop­erty.” That this very is­sue would be in dis­pute stands in di­rect con­trast to the spirit of Texas as a state that re­spects pri­vate prop­erty own­er­ship. If, as the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties claim, the pub­lic re­ceives ben­e­fits from these trees re­main­ing on pri­vate land, then the pub­lic should pay for this ben­e­fit; the prop­erty own­ers should not be drafted into con­vert­ing their land into a pub­lic wilder­ness pre­serve.

Yet this prac­tice has grown wide­spread at the lo­cal level.

Around 50 cities to­tal — in­clud­ing metropoli­tan ar­eas such as Austin, Dal­las, Hous­ton, and San An­to­nio — have adopted bur­den­some tree-cut­ting reg­u­la­tions and or­di­nances po­ten­tially af­fect­ing mil­lions, ac­cord­ing to data from the Texas Chap­ter of the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety of Ar­bori­cul­ture. If the trend con­tin­ues, there may not be many places left soon where a Texan’s right to pri­vate prop­erty is se­cure from the thumb of city gov­ern­ment.

For­tu­nately, there are those who rec­og­nize the dan­ger of this par­tic­u­lar brand of lo­cal gov­ern­ment tyranny and are push­ing back in the Texas Leg­is­la­ture.

Sev­eral pieces of leg­is­la­tion have been filed in the House and Se­nate to re­form the prac­tice. Some of the best bills make it ex­plicit that landown­ers own all the trees and tim­ber on their land while also pro­hibit­ing a gov­ern­men­tal en­tity from cre­at­ing these kinds of reg­u­la­tions in the first place. All of the bills of­fer prop­erty own­ers some much-needed re­prieve.

Prop­erty rights are an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent to our free so­ci­ety. Their preser­va­tion is rea­son why the Texas Leg­is­la­ture should act. Landown­ers must be pro­tected from lo­cal gov­ern­ment over­reach and Tex­ans’ guarded against vi­o­la­tions of our God-given rights to life, lib­erty and pri­vate prop­erty.

Said another way: Your land, your tree.

This large pe­can tree was trans­planted by the de­vel­oper of a project at Bowie and West Fifth streets in Austin. The Texas Leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a bill that would make it il­le­gal to pre­vent landown­ers from cut­ting trees on their land.




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