The liberty-lovin’ Texas Legislature meets once every two years, which isn’t always enough time to enact a liberty-lovin’ agenda. Which is why, last week, Gov. Greg Abbott called the legislature in for a special July session covering issues like abortion, property taxes, and school financing—the statehouse equivalent of summer school.
And then, in the middle of an ambitious 19-item agenda, there was this: a bill to pre-empt local laws protecting old trees.
For Abbott, the arboreal beef is personal.
Dozens of Texas cities and towns have “tree protection” ordinances that local advocates say keep the air cooler and cleaner, and reduce flooding and energy bills. In Austin, developers need city permission to fell older trees, and must plant new trees or pay into a tree-planting fund if they do cut them down. Between 2014 and 2016, a period during which Austin was one of America’s fastest-growing cities, the city used its ordinance to preserve some 43,000 trees. Developers were allowed to remove 23,000 trees, and were required to plant 24,000 replacements. It’s not a huge impediment to development, since Austin only worries about trees over 19 inches in diameter, which make up about 3 percent of the tree population. Still, those older trees constitute about 18 percent of the city’s leaf coverage.
For a certain brand of property-rights Republican, these ordinances represent the thin end of the socialist wedge. "City tree ordinances are some of the most egregious examples of property rights violations in our state,” state Sen. Donna Campbell, who sponsored a tree ordinance pre-emption bill this year, told the Austin American-Stateman in February.
“Austin, Texas, owns your trees,” Abbott said on the radio last week. “That’s insanity. It’s socialistic.”
For Abbott, according to the Texas Observer’s Naveena Sadasivam, the roots of this conflict run deep. From Sadavisam’s piece from Monday:
In 2011, Abbott was looking to demolish his 4,540-square-foot home in West Austin and replace it with an even bigger two-story, four-bedroom house with a backyard pool…. Abbott was given a building permit but also required to protect two large pecan trees — the state tree of Texas — near his new home and swimming pool. He didn’t follow the plan and the construction crew killed one of the pecan trees.
So, to recap: The governor’s construction crew killed a tree in violation of the city ordinance, and now he has a chance to kill the ordinance itself.
This is a recurring issue in the Texas Legislature, but two previous iterations of the law, in 2013 and 2015, failed thanks to an unlikely alliance that included Tea Party mayors, oilmen, environmentalists, and advocates for local control. “Trees are naturally-occurring infrastructure that save City taxpayers billions of dollars in economic services annually,” the city of Austin said in a statement on the 2017 anti-tree measures. Too bad two of them got in the way of Greg Abbott’s swimming pool.