Third ver­sion of tree-re­moval bill clears Se­nate,

Some pro­vi­sions that riled city of­fi­cials dropped.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@states­man.com

The Texas Se­nate gave its ap­proval Fri­day to a third ver­sion of a bill lim­it­ing lo­cal tree or­di­nances, drop­ping sev­eral pro­vi­sions that had riled city of­fi­cials and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of House Bill 7, which would lower the fees a city could charge for tree re­moval if the home­owner planted re­place­ment trees, closely mir­rored a mea­sure Gov. Greg Ab­bott ve­toed in June. In his spe­cial ses­sion call, the gov­er­nor said he wanted to see leg­is­la­tion abol­ish­ing all lo­cal tree or­di­nances, but bills to do that stalled in com­mit­tees. Mean­while, the House passed the re­place­ment-tree-plant­ing bill again.

In an ef­fort to bring that bill more in line with Ab­bott’s vi­sion, the Busi­ness and Com­merce Com­mit­tee on Tues­day added that lo­cal­i­ties may not pro­hibit the re­moval of trees less than 24 inches in di­am­e­ter; set a max­i­mum tree re­moval fee of $400; and stip­u­lated that a city can­not reg­u­late trees out­side of its city lim­its but within its ex­trater­ri­to­rial ju­ris­dic­tion. Those changes drew blow­back from city of­fi­cials and en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates.

On Fri­day, bill spon­sor Sen. Lois Kolkhorst drew back some of those changes, bring­ing an amend­ment to nix the $400 max­i­mum fee and change the 24-inch min­i­mum di­am­e­ter for reg­u­lat­ing tree re­moval to 10 inches.

“I hear peo­ple say­ing ‘This isn’t strong enough,’ and I hear peo­ple say­ing ‘This is too strong.’ I think it’s the be­gin­ning of a con­ver­sa­tion,” said Kolkhorst, R-Bren­ham.

The Se­nate ap­proved those changes 25-6 and voted to pass the bill over­all 17-14. All 10 Democrats and four Repub­li­cans op­posed it. Be­cause the bill was amended, it will have to go back to the House for a sec­ond round of ap­proval there.

At least 90 Texas cities and coun­ties have or­di­nances pro­tect­ing trees. Austin’s tree or­di­nance re­quires landown­ers to get city per­mis­sion to take down any trees with di­am­e­ters of more than 19 inches, and it 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 lan­guage added ear­lier in the week to HB 7 al­low­ing mu­nic­i­pal pro­tec­tion of only trees more than 24 inches in di­am­e­ter caused “a great deal of push­back,” Kolkhorst said. That made her get out a tape mea­sure and walk around look­ing at some trees, she said, and she re­al­ized 24 inches was too big.

The $400 max­i­mum on tree-re­moval fees was prob­lem­atic be­cause fees ranged too widely across ju­ris­dic­tions, Kolkhorst said. On Tues­day, for­mer West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch of­fered the color­ful opinion that, while $400 might be bur­den­some to many Texas home­own­ers, in his city it’s lunch money — not enough to be a tree-chop­ping dis­in­cen­tive. And Kolkhorst wor­ried that set­ting a max­i­mum fee at all could en­cour­age cities to raise their fees to that amount.

Re­mov­ing that stip­u­la­tion “says to the cities, we trust you and your fees” but may mean more re­stric­tions in the fu­ture, Kolkhorst said.

The pro­hi­bi­tion on reg­u­lat­ing trees within a city’s ex­trater­ri­to­rial ju­ris­dic­tion re­mains in the bill. Some op­po­nents fear that could lead to de­vel­op­ers clear-cutting land to cheaply build near city lim­its. Sen. Car­los Uresti, D-San An­to­nio, tried to re­move that pro­vi­sion, not­ing that large swaths of trees were im­por­tant to area mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials op­pose the bill.

De­spite the at­tempts to com­pro­mise, the bill con­tin­ued to draw op­po­si­tion from both sides.

Sen. Jose Menén­dez, D-San An­to­nio, ar­gued that San An­to­nio’s or­di­nance, which reg­u­lates tree re­moval by de­vel­op­ers only, should be al­lowed to stand. Sen. Konni Bur­ton, R-Col­leyville, voted for the bill, but still voiced frus­tra­tion with how weak she con­sid­ered it to be.

“The Leg­is­la­ture was asked to pro­duce a bill that pro­tects the prop­erty rights of the peo­ple from their own po­lit­i­cal sub­di­vi­sions’ over­reach and the op­po­si­tion has screamed for lo­cal con­trol,” Bur­ton said. “Why should we tol­er­ate lo­cal con­trol when it does not pro­mote the rights of the peo­ple? We should not.”

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