Red states try to make blue cities toe the line

In Texas, a tree or­di­nance in the fa­mously lib­eral cap­i­tal is the lat­est scuf­fle

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SAND­HYA SOMASHEKHAR

austin — The grand old oak called Patsy Cline rises grace­fully on three trunks. Way­lon Jen­nings leans lazily be­fore an­gling back to­ward the sun. And Wil­lie Nel­son, tall and broad, as­cends on a torso three feet thick be­fore burst­ing into a dense green canopy.

Cit­i­zens here named the trees in an ef­fort to save more than a dozen of them — all pro­tected un­der a city or­di­nance — that stand in the way of a planned new mixed-use devel­op­ment. It is the kind of quintessen­tially lo­cal bat­tle that plays out in cities across the coun­try, al­beit one with a dis­tinctly lo­cal fla­vor in this quirky, mu­si­cally in­clined town.

But here in Texas, the bigger bat­tle over tree or­di­nances is whether they rep­re­sent a form of lo­cal gov­ern­ment over­reach. Gov. Greg Ab­bott (R), cit­ing grave wor­ries about “so­cial­is­tic” be­hav­ior in the state’s lib­eral cities, has called on Texas law­mak­ers to gather this month for a spe­cial ses­sion that will con­sider a host of bills aimed at cur­tail­ing lo­cal power on is­sues rang­ing from tax­a­tion to col­lect­ing union dues.

Texas presents per­haps the most dra­matic ex­am­ple of the in­creas­ingly ac­ri­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship be­tween red-state lead­ers and their blue city cen­ters, which have moved ag­gres­sively to ex­pand en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and so­cial pro­grams of­ten against the grain of their states.

Repub­li­can state lead­ers across the coun­try have re­sponded to the widen­ing cul­tural gulf by pass­ing leg­is­la­tion pre­empt­ing lo­cal laws. The best-known ex­am­ple is North Carolina’s “bath­room bill,” which was par­tially re­versed this year. It was orig­i­nally aimed at un­der­cut­ting Char­lotte’s ef­forts to ex­pand civil rights laws to in­clude LGBT peo­ple and to pre­vent cities from set­ting their own min­i­mum wage.

But states also have gone af­ter cities in more sub­tle ways. Ohio’s leg­is­la­ture last year at­tempted to block a Cleve­land reg­u­la­tion that re­quires cer­tain city con­trac­tors to hire lo­cal res­i­dents. A new Ari­zona law threat­ens to cut off fund­ing to cities that take ac­tions state of­fi­cials deem to be in vi­o­la­tion of state law.

“Th­ese pre­emp­tion laws are de­signed to in­tim­i­date and bully lo­cal of­fi­cials into do­ing the bid­ding of a smaller group of folks,” said Michael Al­fano of the Cam­paign to De­fend Lo­cal So­lu­tions, a new non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion aimed at fend­ing off state ef­forts to un­der­mine lo­cal power.

Matthew Wal­ter, pres­i­dent of the Repub­li­can State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee, an or­ga­ni­za­tion of Repub­li­can state of­fi­cials, said pre­emp­tion laws are com­ing up more and more be­cause of po­lit­i­cal losses by Democrats at the state and fed­eral lev­els.

Cities “seem to be sort of the last van­guard of Demo­cratic and pro­gres­sive ideals, which at this point con­tinue to move left­ward to­ward . . . a more so­cial­ist vi­sion,” Wal­ter said. Be­cause cities and coun­ties de­rive their power from the states, states are within their rights to rein in rogue lo­cal he said.

The Texas spe­cial ses­sion has not been greeted kindly in the state cap­i­tal of Austin, a lib­eral out­post where of­fi­cials say they are be­ing used as a po­lit­i­cal punch­ing bag by Repub­li­can state law­mak­ers ap­peal­ing to vot­ers else­where in this con­ser­va­tive state.

A war of words has erupted be­tween Ab­bott and city of­fi­cials, with a city coun­cil­man call­ing Ab­bott “cow­ardly” for his ap­proach to a crack­down on “sanc­tu­ary cities” — where of­fi­cials refuse to help de­tain and de­port those in the coun­try il­le­gally — and Ab­bott mock­ing the smell of Austin’s air.

“Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling dif­fer­ent,” Ab­bott joked at a re­cent gath­er­ing of Repub­li­cans, re­fer­ring to the county that in­cludes Austin. “And you know what that fra­grance is? Free­dom. It’s the smell of free­dom that does not ex­ist in Austin, Texas.”

The com­ments did not land well in this fast-de­vel­op­ing city that boasts a high qual­ity of life.

“The air in Austin is pretty sweet with an un­em­ploy­ment rate that is a point lower than the state, a lower vi­o­lent crime rate than the state, with the high­est rates of patents and ven­ture cap­i­tal in the state,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) shot back. “And the air is sweet with tacos.”

Adler has ac­cused the gover­nor of wag­ing a “war on cities,” call­ing the state’s at­tempts to in­ter­fere with what lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties think work best for them “the height of mi­cro­manag­ing.”

“We do feel be­sieged here,” Adler said.

Repub­li­can state law­mak­ers counter that cities like Austin have gone too far in reg­u­lat­ing cit­i­zens, and tree-hug­ging or­di­nances that limit what landown­ers can do with their own prop­er­gov­ern­ments, ties are a prime ex­am­ple.

Texas’s tree or­di­nance is­sue is among 20 agenda items Ab­bott wants law­mak­ers to con­sider at the spe­cial ses­sion that be­gins July 18. Other, far more hefty pro­pos­als, in­clude a teacher pay raise, new abor­tion re­stric­tions and a mea­sure styled af­ter North Carolina’s bath­room bill — by far the most con­tro­ver­sial is­sue.

Also on Ab­bott’s agenda are mea­sures to re­strict the abil­ity of cities and coun­ties to raise prop­erty taxes, an­nex land, col­lect em­ployee union dues and set rules for the use of cell­phones while driv­ing.

The ses­sion comes at a time when ten­sions be­tween the state and some lib­eral Texas cities, in­clud­ing Austin, are ris­ing over fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment. Ear­lier this year, the leg­is­la­ture passed a mea­sure forc­ing sanc­tu­ary cities to help de­tain and de­port those in the coun­try il­le­gally. Austin is among sev­eral cities su­ing the state over the new law.

Still, the tree is­sue has been an an­i­mat­ing one in Texas, with mul­ti­ple bills in­tro­duced dur­ing the reg­u­lar ses­sion tak­ing aim at lo­cal tree or­di­nances. A spon­sor of one of the bills, Sen. Donna Camp­bell (R), said she is sym­pa­thetic to those who want to pre­serve their com­mu­nity’s green­ery but that their pref­er­ences are “im­ma­te­rial” when com­pared with prop­erty rights.

“When a per­son buys a piece of land, they buy ev­ery­thing on it and that in­cludes the trees,” said Camp­bell, an emer­gency-room doc­tor whose dis­trict in­cludes part of Travis County. Camp­bell has asked the at­tor­ney gen­eral to opine on whether tree or­di­nances are per­mit­ted un­der the Texas con­sti­tu­tion.

Many Austin boost­ers say that if the air smells pleas­ant in Austin, it’s thanks to the trees, which cover nearly a third of the land in the city. The canopy has been pre­served in part be­cause of a long-stand­ing or­di­nance that re­quires prop­erty own­ers to get per­mis­sion — and some­times pay a fee — be­fore cut­ting down any tree greater than 19 inches in di­am­e­ter on their own land.

The or­di­nance came up re­cently dur­ing heated de­bate about the Austin Oaks, an am­bi­tious devel­op­ment that will bring hous­ing, shops and glossy of­fice space to a shady area in the north­ern part of town. It is marked by boxy of­fice build­ings built in the 1970s and 1980s, and ex­panses of park­ing lot shaded by sprawling old trees.

The pro­posal to shear the prop­erty of hun­dreds of trees, in­clud­ing about a dozen “her­itage” oaks whose girth ex­ceeds 24 inches, in­fu­ri­ated lo­cal res­i­dents, and they de­cided to make their dis­plea­sure known in dis­tinctly Austin ways.

Idee Kwak, a mu­sic teacher, cre­ated a dio­rama of the prop­erty com­plete with tiny plas­tic trees. Dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion at a city coun­cil meet­ing that bor­dered on per­for­mance art, she en­listed two helpers to rip out the trees and toss them on the ground, as ca­cophonous punk rock from the Nerv played in the back­ground.

An­other res­i­dent, Karen Sironi, a re­tired air­line worker, de­cided to give names to each of the her­itage trees in hopes of hu­man­iz­ing them for city of­fi­cials. Most of the monikers were of coun­try-west­ern singers, though a few drew from other in­spi­ra­tions. When that didn’t work, she painted each tree’s por­trait lined with black — to rep­re­sent its death, she said.

In the end, the de­vel­oper gained per­mis­sion to re­move all of the trees ex­cept Wil­lie Nel­son. On a re­cent morn­ing, as the tem­per­a­tures in Austin be­gan their as­cent to 100 de­grees, Kwak and Sironi rested in the cool shade cast by the tree they called Lady Yoga, lament­ing that any­one would con­sider tak­ing her down.

Sironi said she has no pa­tience with those who think Austin’s or­di­nance es­sen­tially bars landown­ers from cut­ting down their own trees. Af­ter all, she said, the de­vel­oper here won.

“And what about my rights as a prop­erty owner to live in the kind of com­mu­nity I want?” she said. “That’s my right, too.”

ILANA PANICH-LINSMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Karen Sironi, 63, with Way­lon, one of the doomed “her­itage” oak trees she named in Austin. De­spite lo­cal op­po­si­tion, a de­vel­oper gained per­mis­sion to re­move all but one of the 750 tar­geted trees on the site of a planned mixed-use project. The project is called Austin Oaks.

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