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Bills Nixing Local Tree Protections Head to Committee

A pair of bills recently introduced to the Texas Legislature could make it easier for landowners to cut down trees on their property, overriding certain local laws that extend protection to tree populations.

Trees lining Westlake Drive in Austin.

Landowners who want to cut down trees on their property would be able to ignore certain local restrictions under a bill lawmakers in the House will discuss this week. 

House Bill 1858, by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, would forbid city or county governments from restricting landowners who want to cut down trees that they believe pose a risk of fire. And House Bill 1377, introduced by state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would do away with local tree-cutting bans entirely, allowing local governments to require that landowners replace felled trees with new ones or pay a fine.

But the measures face opposition from conservationists who say the bills are a sweetheart deal for developers who would be free to cut down trees to make way for construction, and they say the proposals would jeopardize the beauty of the Texas hill country. 

Both bills have been referred to committee. HB 1858 will be considered Tuesday in the House Business and Industry Committee. HB 1377 will be heard Wednesday in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

Kolkhorst said that her bill was intended to “open up the debate over who ultimately owns a tree on a person’s land, the individual landowner or the government?”

Workman said his bill is a necessary public safety measure. He has spoken out about the fire risk posed by drought-afflicted trees, particularly ashe junipers. The town of Spicewood, where Workman's home is, was the site of a 2011 wildfire that claimed more than 6,500 acres and 67 structures.

“Texas recently endured a series of destructive wildfires that engulfed millions of acres of land and destroyed thousands of homes and other structures,” Workman, the owner of an Austin-based construction company, said in a statement. “Homeowners should have the right to clear their property of vegetation that could fuel a fire.”

More than 300 million trees died as a result of the 2011 drought, and the wildfire risk that comes with dead and dying trees remains a pressing concern for landowners as drought conditions worsen in many parts of Texas heading into the summer. The state’s budget for brush removal was cut in half during the 2011 legislative session.

But critics argue that the bills would weaken local government authority and give undue power to developers. Trees For Texas, an Austin-based conservation group, branded HB 1858 the “Workman believe in bulldozers bill,” and is attempting to mobilize opposition to the measure in advance of the committee hearing.

Austin-area arborist Keith Brown said that Kolkhorst's bill was "not well thought out" and not "much concerned about protecting trees." Under Kolkhorst's bill if landowners remove a tree, they could be forced to pay a fine limited to “$100 per inch of girth,” which would then be used for land improvements on the property. Many developers, Brown said, especially those in cities, would be happy to pay a fine to cut down trees, especially if they can then reinvest that money in other landscaping improvements.

About 50 municipalities around the state, including Austin and Houston, restrict the ability of property owners to cut down trees. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, published an op-ed on March 1 that argued in favor of local control and against Kolkhorst’s bill.

"Every election cycle, we hear certain groups claiming they will fight for local control because people in San Antonio know what is best for San Antonio and not lawmakers in Austin or Washington D.C. Quality of life decisions should be decided by local governments because they have the ability to know what the citizens of the area want," he wrote in the op-ed.

“If passed, this legislation would undo the work San Antonio has done in creating a tree ordinance that ensured a greater quality of life for residents,” he wrote. “I cannot imagine a San Antonio where builders run rampant tearing down trees for profits at the expense of our children's health and the beautiful hill country.”

But Kolkhorst said that the rights of individuals should come first.

“We hear a lot about local control,” she said in a statement, “but isn’t the ultimate local control to empower an individual landowner whenever we can?”

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