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Legislation could limit Austin’s tree ordinances

Friday, April 12, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

Two bills pending before the Texas Legislature could have a dramatic effect on the future of Austin’s trees.  House Bill 1377, carried by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would recognize all Texas landowner’s trees as “real property,” thereby undercutting state municipalities’ existing ordinances. House Bill 1858, introduced by State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, affords property owners the right to remove trees on their land if they feel the trees pose a fire risk.

The City of Austin is opposed to the Kolkhorst bill, which is slated for committee hearings this month. If enacted, it would go into effect on September 1, 2013. The city also opposed HB 1858 but after some amendments the city dropped its opposition.

City Arborist Michael Embesi is tasked with advocating on behalf of local trees.

“There’s a long way to go before (HB 1377) becomes law, but we’re monitoring it closely,” Embesi said. Trees are “a true asset we have within the community…more than aesthetic beauty it’s about (trees’) scientific value—clean air, reducing rain runoff.”

Embesi also cited the economic benefits of trees such as “reducing energy needs” and increased property values. According to Pennsylvania’s Tree Resource Guide, one 25-foot tree reduces an average home’s cooling and heating costs by “8 to 12 percent.”

Both HB 1377 and HB 1858 draw a line between owners and their residence’s municipalities. Workman is also supporting HB 1377, according to his communications director, Brian Mitchell.

“As a strong supporter of private property rights, Rep. Workman supports HB 1377,” Mitchell wrote in an email, “However, Rep. Workman’s focus at this time is on fire prevention and HB 1858. (It) will make clear that a property owner owns the trees on their own property and is best suited to make decisions regarding the safety of their own property.”

While Embesi staunchly opposes HB 1377, he has been able to find common ground with Workman on HB 1858 – a fact that he strives to make clear. Embesi said that recent media coverage has inadvertently drawn a line in the sand across the board. 

“Being involved I understand,” said Embesi, “But it’s important to clearly delineate that these are different.”

Embesi originally expressed concern that H.B. 1858 “appeared to have created a loophole” that could subvert the municipality’s regulatory power.  But after reviewing the latest draft of the bill, notes that there is “no intent to change municipalities’ right to regulate trees” and that he’s “much more comfortable with the (most recent) language.”


For Workman’s part, Mitchell said that he
is “glad to have been able to work with the cities of Austin and San Antonio to come up with a solution to protect property owners’ rights without sidestepping local control.”

The City of Austin initially opposed HB 1858 but Workman amended it so that it no longer affects heritage trees or the city’s development regulations. So the city has dropped its opposition. The city does, however, oppose HB 1377.

Austin
has a history of active tree protection. For example, 2010’s Heritage Tree Ordinance even protects historic tree roots against soil compaction and the effects of paving — a thorn in the side for developers.

The city’s Tree and Natural Area Protection Code is nationally recognized as a benchmark in urban forest maintenance. “It was one of the most progressive ordinances in the country,” Embesi said of the code, which was enacted in 1983.

I
t’s this reputation that makes Austin a leading line of defense for Texas trees. And on that front Embesi says he’s “honored to be leading the charge.”

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