Se­nate com­mit­tee bulks up tree-re­moval mea­sure to bet­ter fit Ab­bott’s vi­sion,

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@states­ Con­tact El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell at 512-445-3696. Twit­ter: @efind­ell

A Texas Se­nate com­mit­tee on Tues­day moved for­ward with a bulked-up ver­sion of a bill re­strict­ing lo­cal tree re­moval fees, with the spon­sor try­ing to craft “a work­able tree bill” that will ap­peal to Gov. Greg Ab­bott.

The new ver­sion of House Bill 7, which the Busi­ness and Com­merce Com­mit­tee ap­proved in a 5-3 vote, is “largely based on” its orig­i­nal in­tent of al­low­ing prop­erty own­ers to plant trees in­stead of pay­ing re­moval fees, said spon­sor Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Bren­ham.

But it adds that lo­cal­i­ties may not pro­hibit the re­moval of trees less than 24 inches in di­am­e­ter, sets a max­i­mum re­moval fee of $400 and stip­u­lates that a city can’t reg­u­late trees that are out­side its city lim­its but within its ex­trater­ri­to­rial ju­ris­dic­tion.

Those changes are an at­tempt to bridge the gap be­tween a bill Ab­bott ve­toed this year and bills the gover­nor re­quested that are stalled in com­mit­tees.

“It is my hope that th­ese changes will sat­isfy some of the stake­hold­ers — the gover­nor — and, work­ing with peo­ple who op­pose it, we’ll try to find that fine line,” Kolkhorst said. “I’m try­ing to get a work­able tree bill here.”

Ab­bott said in his call for the spe­cial ses­sion that he wanted to see a bill mak­ing it clear that only home­own­ers own the trees on their land, over­turn­ing the lo­cal tree or­di­nances that Austin and at least 90 other Texas com­mu­ni­ties have. The Se­nate passed such a mea­sure, but it and a sim­i­lar House ver­sion have not left House com­mit­tees.

The House, in­stead, again re-ad­vanced a mea­sure Ab­bott ve­toed in June to lower fees that cities re­quire for tree re­moval. Ab­bott said in his veto state­ment that the bill’s as­sump­tion that cities could charge such fees gave li­cense to “the mu­nic­i­pal mi­cro­man­age­ment of pri­vate prop­erty.”

The Se­nate com­mit­tee’s new ver­sion of the bill Tues­day would cut into Austin’s tree or­di­nance, which re­quires landown­ers to get city per­mis­sion to take down any trees with di­am­e­ters of more than 19 inches. Austin’s or­di­nance also pro­hibits re­moval of “her­itage trees” — cer­tain species with di­am­e­ters of at least 24 inches — un­less the tree is a safety risk or is pre­vent­ing rea­son­able land use.

The re­vised bill brought push­back Tues­day from more than a dozen op­po­nents — many of whom said they had been pre­vi­ous sup­port­ers of the bill — ar­gu­ing the changes didn’t al­low rea­son­able pro­tec­tions for trees.

The ques­tion of ex­trater­ri­to­rial ju­ris­dic­tion pit­ted ar­gu­ments that peo­ple out­side of city lim­its can­not vote to elect the city coun­cil mem­bers gov­ern­ing them against fears that de­vel­op­ers would clear-cut large swaths of land to cheaply build close to cities.

Three peo­ple turned out in sup­port of the bill changes. Two were rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Texas home­builders’ as­so­ci­a­tions who ar­gued that high tree mit­i­ga­tion costs do noth­ing but make houses more costly for new home­own­ers.

Bryan Mathew, Texas Pub­lic Pol­icy Foun­da­tion pol­icy an­a­lyst, ar­gued the is­sue was a sim­ple one: “Who owns the tree?”

But rep­re­sen­ta­tives from cities across the state said the statewide bill did not — and could not — ad­dress dis­parate ge­o­graphic cir­cum­stances.

Of­fi­cials from West Lake Hills said the tree or­di­nance was one of the things that made their city a valu­able place to live, and that $400 wasn’t nearly enough of a dis­in­cen­tive to keep some­one from chop­ping down a tree.

“The fee should be set lo­cally ... $400 is a lot to an in­di­vid­ual liv­ing on a quar­ter-acre lot in parts of Texas,” said for­mer Mayor Dave Claunch. “But in West Lake Hills, some­one will drop $400 on lunch.”

Galve­ston res­i­dent Jackie Cole said re-es­tab­lish­ing tree canopies af­ter hur­ri­canes was cru­cial, and the new bill would com­pletely negate all pro­tec­tions there, be­cause the is­land doesn’t lend it­self to the large “her­itage” trees al­lowed to be pro­tected.

In San An­to­nio, the is­sue is a military one. Trees on pri­vate land around military in­stal­la­tions help buf­fer noise and sound and — when they’re re­moved — push en­dan­gered species such as the golden-cheeked war­bler onto military land, which is prob­lem­atic, of­fi­cials said.

“If this bill be­comes law, we would be at greater risk of los­ing our bases to the (Base Re­align­ment and Clo­sure process),” said re­tired Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, San An­to­nio’s di­rec­tor of military af­fairs, say­ing it would be seen as “lack of sup­port by the state of Texas.”

Adrian Shel­ley, di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Ci­ti­zen, told the com­mit­tee the changes had flipped his sup­port for the bill.

“There’s just not a one-size-fits-all so­lu­tion for this,” he said. “It isn’t a statewide is­sue.”


This large pe­can tree was trans­planted by the de­vel­oper of this project at Bowie Street and West Fifth Street in Austin. A Se­nate bill be­ing con­sid­ered would cut into Austin’s tree or­di­nance.

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