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