State legislation threatens local tree ordinances in Texas cities

December 4, 2017

This summer, concerned citizens filled the halls of the Texas Capitol, testifying passionately over controversial subjects from insurance coverage of abortions to the “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people. Meanwhile, city officials and activists from cities and towns across the state gathered in Austin to fight for an entirely different category of living things that call urban landscapes like Austin home: trees.

During the spring 2017 legislative session, the Texas Legislature filed seven bills regarding a city’s authority to regulate tree removal. The bills ranged from prohibiting cities from restricting the removal of trees on private land to reducing a city’s authority to charge fees to residents and developers who remove trees without replanting. These charges are also known as tree mitigation fees, and they are intended to offset the costs of replenishing the urban forest when trees are removed.

Although none of the spring legislation made much progress, a bill of the latter variety, HB 7, was passed during the summer’s special legislative session. Governor Greg Abbott, who has been outspoken in the past about Austin’s tree preservation ordinances, specifically included tree regulations in the special session’s agenda.

The bill, which goes into effect on Dec. 1, would require municipalities that charge tree mitigation fees to provide credits from the city to go towards the cost of tree mitigation.

According to the bill, residential property owners in existing single-family homes could receive a credit for the entire fee, while land developers building new residential buildings could receive a credit for 50 percent of the fee.

In Austin, the city expects that trees be preserved during development on private land unless the tree prevents use of or access to the property, Austin city arborist Keith Mars said. If protecting a tree from being removed is impossible, the next step is to plant back the trees that were removed.

“We have prioritized protecting big, old trees because we know they can’t just be replaced overnight, it takes generations to get those values back,” said Mars, who testified on behalf of the city of Austin during the special session. “That’s why we prioritize preservation first, replanting second, and then when you don’t or can’t preserve, when you don’t have enough room to plant everything back, and you still have required tree mitigation, that’s when a fee is required.”

The common measurement of a tree is its “diameter at breast height,” or its diameter in inches 4.5 feet above the ground. In regards to Austin’s tree mitigation fees, each inch is valued at $200, which is collected by the city and redistributed to tree programs on public property, Mars said.

One such program is the Urban Forest Grant, which funds projects such as tree planting, education and tree disease control. The Urban Forest Grant is funded by these tree mitigation fees through the Urban Forest Replenishment Fund, established in 2002  to satisfy the city’s mitigation requirements, according to Jason Traweek, urban forestry resource manager for the city of Austin.

According to Traweek, HB7 could cause reduced funding for the Urban Forest Grant by an estimated 35 percent, which will lead to less funding available for urban forestry projects.

Due to the reduction of funds Urban Forest Grant because of HB7, Austin will be able to replant less trees in the long-term, said Rich DePalma, a board member at Austin non-profit TreeFolks.

“When you fly over Austin, you see a tremendous amount of green,” Mars said. “Given the extent of development in Austin, it has the potential to completely reshape what our community looks like.”

The reduction of trees would, among other things, impact the quality of life in the city, decrease property values and increase energy bills and create more demand on the electrical system due to a lack of shade from the trees, according to Mars.

“There could be some pretty major consequences of indiscriminate tree removal across the city,” he said. “That’s why you see not just Austin, but cities of all sizes and all political spectrums in the state that have chosen to protect trees in their community and prioritize tree preservation. It is very common now across the country to see that type of recognition for those valuable services that trees provide.”

By providing these services, trees are part of an often-overlooked “green infrastructure,” DePalma said.

“Our cities are growing at a much quicker rate than anything else … and so we have more people coming into our metropolitan areas throughout the state,” DePalma said, “and yet we’re losing that green infrastructure, we’re losing the air quality and water quality, we’re losing the stormwater mitigation that trees provide.”

The bill wouldn’t only adversely affect Austin; DePalma, who advocated against the tree bills during the special session along with Mars, said he talked to San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg in the Capitol about the importance of the urban tree canopy in maintaining good air quality.

San Antonio’s three-year average for 2015, 2016 and 2017 of ground-level ozone, which can contribute to respiratory problems, is 74 parts per billion in the atmosphere, which is out of compliance with the EPA’s standard of 70 ppb.

Trees have a complicated relationship with ozone; while trees emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can contribute to ozone formation, tree species that emit low levels of VOCs can help reduce urban ozone levels.

DePalma said the bills brought together different people from across the state who advocate for urban forests in Texas.

“Having to build that relationship and to be able to start exchanging information was a big win,” he said. “I don’t think that was the intention from the governor’s office and from the representatives … but it was the silver lining in what was a very aggressive attack on what we value in central Texas and throughout the state, which is the look and feel of our communities based upon the heritage trees that we have surrounding us. It’s what makes us Hill Country here in central Texas.”

Read the complete project here by Jina Chung, Julianne Hodges, David Sternberg and Alana Hernandez. This project was produce for J321F: Reporting on City and County Government during the fall of 2017.
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