An ongoing power struggle between state and local officials has made its way into Texans’ yards.
State lawmakers on Monday took public input on one of several bills filed this year that would restrict the ability of cities to ban residents from cutting down trees on their properties.
About 50 Texas cities have enacted such "tree protection" ordinances in an effort to preserve a natural aesthetic or protect property values — among other reasons. Republican lawmakers view the regulations as an assault on private property rights. But several city officials said they reflect the values of citizens in their communities and that whether to enact such rules is a decision best made at the local level.
They also said House Bill 1572 could have unintended consequences. The legislation, filed by Austin Republican Paul Workman, would prohibit Texas cities from passing or enforcing ordinances that ban residents from removing trees they think pose a fire risk.
City officials told members of the House Business and Industry Committee that the bill could increase fire hazards because the trees actually help contain the spread of fire.
But Workman said that trees and vegetation on a property fuel fires. He cited the 2011 Bastrop wildfire that destroyed more than 1,500 homes in Central Texas.
“A sad lesson from that fire is that restrictive rules put in place by municipalities and the homeowners association put undue burdens on homeowners,” Workman said.
He noted that his legislation makes an exception for cities to regulate larger trees that are not generally considered a fire risk.
Elizabeth McGreevy, a longtime ecologist who testified against the bill, said most people aren't aware of the potentially negative ramifications of tree removal. In light of this, she said an individual property owner's rights should be balanced with the community's ecological health.
"I have found most people want to do the right thing but don't really know what to do," McGreevy said, calling for more education on the issue.
Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, asked McGreevy whether property owners should be able to do whatever they want with the trees on their property.
“As far as government goes, property rights is a core, central, basic foundational truth in a constitutional republic. If someone wants to cut every tree down or plant a tree every 2 inches (on their property), then they can do it,” Stickland said.
City council members from West Lake Hills complained that Workman's bill takes a one-size-fits-all approach, asserting that each city has unique needs.
“Local control, fire safety, property rights and preservation of natural beauty can and do exist together,” said councilwoman Rhonda McCullough. “[Our] community has worked hard to preserve the natural beauty of the Hill Country setting, while at the same time ensuring the safety of residents living there.”
Until three years ago, McCullough said West Lake Hills residents couldn't remove larger trees from their properties without consulting the city. In 2014, in response to resident concerns about fire hazards, they changed the rules to allow a 30-foot vegetation-free buffer around homes and protect trees outside that zone.
The current ordinances, McCullough said, allow residents and firefighters to safely exit and access the building in the event of a fire.
Aaron Woolverton, assistant chief at the Austin Fire Department, said the bill could actually increase the risk of wildfire destruction.
“Rarely does removing trees mitigate the spread of fire. In fact, trees are actually helpful in mitigating the spread of fire,” Woolverton said, explaining that the less shade provided to the grass from trees, the drier it is and the quicker it spreads fire.
Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks — the only person to testify in favor of the bill Monday — dismissed the science behind Woolverton’s logic, saying that trees most often increased fire hazards.
“The dirty little secret about wild land firefighting is once a fire reaches a certain size, there’s nothing a fire department can do to stop the progression of that fire,” Nicks said. “Our only hope to have a better outcome is to reduce fuels before the fire begins. That’s what Workman’s bill does.”
Workman isn't the only legislator targeting local tree ordinances. Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, has filed Senate Bill 782 that states landowners own the trees on their property and limits the fees local governments can enforce on property owners for removing larger trees. Senate Bill 744, authored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would also offset similar fees imposed by a municipality.
Workman's bill was left pending in committee Monday. The panel is expected to vote on it at a later meeting.
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