Third version of tree-removal bill clears Senate,
Some provisions that riled city officials dropped.
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.”