Again taking a cue from Gov. Greg Abbott’s vow to call out those state legislators who defy his agenda during the Texas Legislature’s ongoing special session, we call out legislators who supposedly represent our area but are more intent on undermining local control. That means calling out Sen. Brian Birdwell for complying with Abbott’s demand that the state uproot local tree ordinances — a matter ideally left to town councils and the neighborhood folks who elect them. By contrast, Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal support a more thoughtful approach respectful of local control.
The governor demands state lawmakers gut any locally approved ordinance that prevents or discourages one from cutting down trees on his or her property. The scenario closely parallels what we saw recently in a battle regarding short-term vacation rentals in Waco — a classic case of property rights versus neighborhood sentiment in which the Waco City Council ultimately sided with neighborhoods after a strong push by angry residents of the historic (and tree-shrouded) Castle Heights and Karem Park neighborhoods.
And that’s the big problem with the governor’s edict. Some neighborhoods are very defensive about preserving a broad canopy of trees — not only because trees improve air quality and prevent soil erosion but also because mature trees shield yards and homes from intense summer sun and add a picturesque quality absent from developments where trees are clear-cut from the landscape.
In testimony before the Senate Business & Commerce Committee, Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment acknowledged that some ordinances may be “out of whack” in certain demands they make of homeowners. However, this would seem to justify individuals working with their elected council members to improve or revise such ordinances. And, he said, if the state must assume a role, it could best help by setting reasonable parameters for all. But simply scrapping any ordinance that blocks or deters tree-cutting “seems like we’re falling off the other side of the horse.”
Jaye Russell, a real-estate agent who testified before the same committee, asked how the state’s zeal to supersede local control would help Texas. (She never received an answer.) She also questioned any supposed populist push to fell local tree ordinances, given few such individuals were in evidence to testify: “I’ve heard here anecdotal stories [from legislators] about people who have been harmed by these local community ordinances. I don’t see any of them here today. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know their names. I’m assuming they had real problems and that happens. Nothing’s perfect.”
The message was clear: The Senate bill is more a big favor to home builders and developers than individual homeowners. Then she went on to outline how fallen trees in her area can impact her property in terms of flooding and soil erosion.
“Many cities have chosen not to have tree preservation ordinances, and that’s perfectly OK because each Texas city is unique,” said Live Oak Mayor Mary Dennis, president of the Texas Municipal League. “The city of Live Oak does have a tree ordinance that we passed in 2000 and I’m very glad to say we have been designated a Tree City USA. And we have an Arbor Day where arborists come out and we give trees away to our residents and this has worked really well for our city.” She also decried state intrusion into local affairs.
The Trib editorial board has mixed feelings about what should and should not be in any ideal tree ordinance. (The city of Waco offers a broad tree guideline, urging “avoidance of clear-cutting outside necessary construction areas.”) But we ultimately believe this is the business of cities, communities and their elected councils — not some state-ordained, one-size-fits-all law covering an expanse as environmentally diverse as Texas. (Our state has at least 13 ecologically different terrains.) So-called heritage trees might be important in places such as windswept West Texas — or perhaps not important at all. But for Austin-based lawmakers to kowtow to deep-pocketed home-builder associations is not only overreach but something far worse.
Birdwell, a Granbury Republican, earns an F from us for doing the bidding of Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to the exclusion of local control. We give Republicans Anderson and Kacal a B for supporting a more nuanced compromise plan in the House, allowing those who cut down trees to at least partially address city tree mitigation fees by planting yet other trees (with many of the specifics left to the cities themselves and even tree experts). We appreciate this considerate approach. However, the Senate bill is a glaring abuse of state power and yet another attack on local control.