Growth Of Private Tree Regulation Spurs Fear Of Backlash
Cities have long regulated what can be done to trees in parks, along public streets or on government property, deciding when they can be trimmed, treated for disease or removed.
In recent years an increasing number of cities also have started regulating what happens to trees on private property — on land owned by either developers or homeowners, including trees in their yards. Faced with booming populations, these cities are treating trees as a key part of urban planning and green infrastructure. The idea is that even trees on private property serve the public good by soaking up stormwater, filtering water for lakes and rivers, cleaning the air and cooling buildings to cut down on energy consumption.
But a recent tangle over the regulation of trees on private land in Texas has some urban tree advocates bracing for a backlash.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, pushed state lawmakers in a recent special session to scrap cities’ tree ordinances, which he called “socialism,” in favor of a state law stipulating that any private property owner, including developers, had complete control over trees on their land. Abbott’s proposal would have overruled laws regulating trees on private property in about a hundred cities across the state, including Austin.
“The question comes down to who owns the tree, whose tree is it, and what does it mean to own something?” said Bryan Mathew, a policy analyst with the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research group that supported Abbott’s legislation. “We’re moving more and more into a ‘nanny state’ where we think experts should make the best decisions for us.”
Abbott’s measure died in the Legislature, though lawmakers did offset the fees that cities can charge property owners for removing a tree if they plant new ones on their land.
“What looked like a tsunami coming at us was not the storm we thought it would be,” said Keith Mars, Austin’s city arborist. The legislation ended up “nowhere near as bad as we thought it might be.”
Nevertheless, tree advocates are worried. “If this kind of behavior were to take root, it would be disastrous,” said Larry Wiseman, former president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for urban trees. “It’s mind-boggling.”