Texas Politics

Message to Texas lawmakers over local tree ordinances: ‘Butt out’

Trees are at the heart of legislative discussions at the Texas Capitol this session. This tree is in a quiet TCU-area neighborhood in Fort Worth.
Trees are at the heart of legislative discussions at the Texas Capitol this session. This tree is in a quiet TCU-area neighborhood in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

Don’t mess with Texas tree owners.

That’s the message coming from the Texas Legislature, as state lawmakers consider more than a handful of bills addressing trees — and what landowners may or may not do with the ones on their property.

But these proposals are now in the middle of the latest struggle over local control in Texas, as state legislators weigh in on issues ranging from plastic bag bans to short-term home rentals.

Now lawmakers have turned their focus to trees, as city officials want the right to determine what landowners do with their trees and state officials say they need to step in and take control.

“Cities should not tell property owners what they can and cannot do with the trees on their own land,” said state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who is among the lawmakers who filed tree bills. “More offensive still is when cities allow for the cutting of trees only if the property owner pays a fee.

“Municipalities should not be infringing on citizens’ personal property rights but rather focusing on delivering critical local services at the best possible cost.”

Several bills have been filed, stating that landowners own their trees and should be able to trim or take them down at will.

Margaret DeMoss, a Fort Worth woman, is among the North Texans watching the proposals and hoping lawmakers don’t go too far.

“It’s way out of line for the state to think they can come up with a bill that will uniformly meet the needs of trees in all the different areas of the state,” said DeMoss, a board member of Scenic Fort Worth and Scenic Texas. “I think it’s really important this session that cities stand up individually and together to the Legislature and say, ‘We are in charge of our local population. We are elected to take care of our constituents.’

“A lot of these issues are local issues, not state issues, and the state just needs to butt out.”

Tree preservation?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is among those weighing in on the tree issue, as he travels around the state talking about the need to end a patchwork of local regulations across the state.

He tells the story about a pecan tree on his property in Austin that he wants to take down, but he can’t unless he pays a fine or plants other trees on his land.

“Private property rights were being mowed down,” he said during a recent speech in Fort Worth.

Some cities have ordinances in place preventing homeowners and developers from removing trees without getting permits, making plans to plant other trees or agreeing to pay fines.

In Fort Worth, homeowners on lots less than one acre are not impacted by local tree rules.

Larger lots are covered by the city’s Urban Forestry Ordinance, which went into effect in 2007, that requires developers to mitigate the destruction of trees by saving some, replanting new ones or paying into a tree fund, according to Fort Worth planning officials.

The city has a goal of achieving 30 percent canopy coverage and promoting a “multi-aged urban forest,” officials say.

When developing on sites of one acre or larger, the city’s goal is to preserve 25 percent of existing tree canopy and, through preservation or planting, reach the required canopy coverage.

Arlington also does not have an ordinance that impacts most homeowners in single-family residences. But there is a policy in place for tree mitigation on nonresidential properties.

Subdivisions now being built have to preserve 35 percent of existing trees and, on non-residential properties, developers have to keep a 1-to-1 ration, replacing the number of trees removed, paying into the reforestation fund or adding trees elsewhere, such as to park properties, said Gincy Thoppil, assistant director for development services in Arlington’s Community Development and Planning Department.

At least 50 Texas cities have tree protection ordinances, including Kennedale, Mansfield, North Richland Hills and Weatherford, according to the Texas Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.

Benefits of trees

“Clearly this is a case of right-wing Republicans trying to interfere with municipalities’ ability to govern themselves,” said former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, a longtime environmentalist and legislative liaison for Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. “This is city rights versus private property rights.

“Unfortunately what people don’t understand is these trees are public goods,” he said. “They are cleaning our air. The city has the right to protect trees of certain ages and sizes. They have value.”

There are many benefits to having trees in the community, far above and beyond the fact that they provide shade on hot Texas days, officials say.

They can help stimulate economic development, boost property values, even attract new businesses, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

They also absorb rain, which shrinks the amount of water hitting the pavement and heading to a stormwater drainage system.

And they improve air quality by producing oxygen, removing pollutants from the air and reducing smog, studies from the A&M Forest Service and others show.

They also can reduce home heating and cooling costs and provide key habitats for birds, animals and insects.

On the table

Here’s a look at some of the tree legislation before state lawmakers this year:

Senate Bill 744 This measure by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, requires a city that imposes a tree mitigation fee to let developers apply for a credit for tree planting to offset the fee. Developers also would be allowed to plant a tree somewhere else in the city rather than pay the fee. The bill has been approved by the Texas Senate.

SB 782 This proposal by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, states that government can’t prevent landowners from trimming or removing trees on their own property. And if the city has mitigation fees for removing trees, it can’t charge more than $100 per inch of girth of the mature tree. The measure also states that a landowner may plant a replacement tree instead of paying a mitigation fee. The bill has been referred to a committee for study.

“Few rights are more essential to a free society than private property rights,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately, municipalities across Texas have been eroding these long-established rights and it’s costing Texas families and businesses a fortune.

“City tree ordinances are some of the most egregious examples of property rights violations in our state, affecting millions of property owners in Texas. It’s time to shift the balance of local control back in favor of local liberty,” Campbell said.

SB 1082 Burton said she filed this measure after recently learning about municipal tree regulations, which she believes “are an infringement on property rights.”

Her bill states that a landowner owns all the trees on their land. And a government can’t prevent a landowner from trimming or removing trees on their land — and may not assess a fee against a landowner who does remove trees. The bill has been referred to a committee for review.

HB 2535 This bill by state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, states that governments may not keep a landowner from trimming or removing trees on their land. If there’s a fee, it must be proportional and not more than $100 per inch of girth. Landowners may plant trees to replace trees removed without paying the fee. The bill has been referred to a committee for review.

HB 2052 This measure by state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, creates a tree mitigation fee credit for planted trees. The bill has been referred to a committee for review.

SB 898 The proposal by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, states that landowners own all the trees and timber on their land and governmental entities may not stop them from trimming or removing trees on their land. The bill has been referred to a committee for review.

HB 1572: This measure by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, prevents cities from putting in place ordinances that bar property owners from removing trees they believe create a fire risk. The bill has been referred to a committee for review.

The legislative session ends May 29.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Trees best suited for local soils and climates

Here’s a look at some of the large, medium and small trees best suited for Tarrant County.

Large Pecan, green ash, chinquapin oak, Texas red oak, live oak, American elm, lacebark elm

Medium Bigtooth maple, common persimmon, Texas ash, Kentucky coffeetree, Italian stone pine

Small Common button-bush, crape myrtle, desert willow, Mexican plum, deciduous holly, rusty blackhaw

Source: City of Fort Worth