When Governor Greg Abbott called for a special session last week, his list of 20 priority issues included one item that left some observers scratching their heads. In addition to property tax reform and anti-abortion measures, Abbott said he wanted lawmakers to override cities’ regulations protecting trees.
“Some local governments, like the city of Austin, are doing everything they can to overregulate,” Abbott said at a press conference announcing the special session. “I want legislation that … prevent[s] cities from micromanaging what property owners do with trees on their private land.”
Why was the governor asking lawmakers to examine what appeared to be a non-issue?
The answer may lie in Abbott’s personal experience with Austin’s tree ordinance. In a recent radio interview, Abbott said he was upset that the city of Austin wouldn’t allow him to remove a pecan tree at the house he owned in West Austin and required him to plant new trees.
“Austin, Texas owns your trees,” Abbott said. “That’s insanity. … It’s socialistic.”
But city records tell a different story. 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. The construction, however, could’ve harmed two large pecan trees in his yard considered “heritage” trees by the city of Austin.
According to city records, 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. He was later allowed to remove the pecan tree and at least three other trees on his property.
Matt Hirsch, a spokesperson for Abbott, did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2010, Austin City Council adopted a heritage tree ordinance, which provides protection to certain species of trees 24 inches and greater in diameter. The Austin regulations require property owners to inform the city if they’re planning development activity that could affect a heritage tree. In May 2011, when Abbott applied for a permit to construct the new home, a city arborist inspected his property and required that the two pecan trees be protected during construction. Specifically, the arborist required that he install a fence to protect the trees, add mulch and avoid harming the critical root zones.
“No sprinkler or landscaping impacts greater than 4 inches allowed,” the city arborist wrote. “There’s critical root zones on entire lot.”
But a year later, Abbott asked for permission to remove the 24-inch pecan tree because it was dying. When the city came out to inspect, they discovered that the construction crew had damaged the roots, city arborist Keith Mars told the Observer. Two-thirds of the canopy was dead.
“Unpermitted impacts had occurred within the critical root zone,” the inspector wrote, which had led to the “poor” condition of the tree. Abbott had broken the rules. “This was to be preserved per previous tree permits,” he wrote. Nonetheless, the city let Abbott cut down the tree, only asking that he plant new trees to make up for the loss.
Since then Abbott has requested and received permission to remove three other trees from his property: a 23-inch diameter red oak, a 19-inch magnolia and the 29-inch heritage pecan.