The Texas Legislature’s Chainsaw Massacre

In the name of “liberty,” Senate Republicans are hacking down local rules protecting trees — except when they’re making exceptions for themselves.

At least 90 cities and counties in Texas have ordinances protecting trees. San Antonio has an ordinance. Weatherford has an ordinance. Austin has an ordinance. So do the verdantly named North Texas burgs of Little Elm, Mesquite and Oak Point. And, of course, The Woodlands does. Not surprisingly, the unincorporated town of Notrees in West Texas doesn’t, though Google Maps provides visual evidence that the town’s name is not entirely accurate.

People love trees, or at least value them, and many Texas communities have seen fit to protect them, typically with ordinances that require permits for removing mature trees of certain species. This wasn’t really controversial or a matter of major public interest until Governor Greg Abbott turned a personal vendetta against a pecan tree that he killed into a special session emergency.

(And before you go accusing me of being a knee-jerk tree-hugger — my Twitter handle is, admittedly, @forrest4trees — I’ll save you the trouble: guilty as charged. But I’ll also point out that I own a Stihl chainsaw that’s bucked a few cords in its day. I grew up in a South Texas farmhouse heated solely with a wood-burning stove fed by wood from our acreage. I’ve also had experience with Austin’s heritage tree ordinance: It was a simple matter to get approval to remove a huge protected cottonwood that had started to crack our foundation.)

Governor Greg Abbott  Sam DeGrave

Unlike many causes at the Capitol, there is no grassroots outcry to overturn the tyranny of tree rules. Perhaps that’s because most people, conservative, liberal or indifferent, are not ideologues who throw temper tantrums when their community has democratically decided, through the instrument of local government, to preserve a highly valued part of the commons. At a Senate committee hearing last week, only two people testified in favor of Senate Bill 14, legislation passed by the Senate on Wednesday that would more or less obliterate city and county tree rules. Forty-four people, however, signed up to speak against the measure. Abbott’s been putting out near-daily press releases with the subject line, “Governor Abbott Announces Growing Support for [         ].” His release for his tree-massacre priority consisted of canned quotes from the Texas Association of Builders and other business interests.

SB 14 is a particularly ridiculous part of the concerted attack on “local control” — the laissez-faire Texas tradition of the state leaving most matters to the local institutions of school board, city council and county commission. Of the 20 matters Abbott put on the special session agenda, half are proposals that would undermine cities’ ability to govern themselves. With Republican control of Washington, D.C., and going on three decades of near-total GOP control of state government, Texas Republicans have turned their sights on a new enemy: their fellow Texans who happen to live in cities. Abbott has been particularly vicious and petty. (The governor may be one of the few politicians I’ve ever observed who manages to combine a persistent mean streak with a stultifying blandness. Bob Bullock, empathetic rage-a-holic, he is not.) This week, he refused to meet with the mayors of Texas’ five biggest cities, who represent roughly one-quarter of the state population. He has a particular disregard for Austin, a city that even Rick Perry seemed to at least have a rough affection for.

Of course, Abbott and Dan Patrick and Senator Bob Hall, the author of SB 14, don’t frame their attacks on local control this way. When it comes to the tree ordinances, their arguments are kind of hilarious, but also revealing. They demonstrate a shallow free-market fundamentalism that falls apart as soon as some special interest or powerful local constituency balks.

Abbott labeled Austin’s tree ordinance “socialistic.” On Wednesday, during floor debate over SB 14, Hall answered a Democratic senator’s half-serious question about why he hated trees by saying, “I love trees … I also love liberty.” Hall has lived in Texas less than a decade and is perhaps best remembered as the guy who claimed that “Satan” had a “stranglehold” on his GOP opponent, former Senator Bob Deuell. In Hall’s statement of intent on SB 14, he played constitutional scholar, claiming that “private property rights are foundational to all other rights of a free people” and that “ownership gives an individual the right to enjoy and develop the property as they see fit.” Therefore, placing any restrictions on when a property owner can prune or remove a tree “thwarts the right to the use of the property.”

This absolutist formulation, which in casual speech is reduced to “I luv liberty,” would seem to disallow virtually any restrictions on what property owners can do to their property. What exception is possibly allowed here?

Well, plenty, if you’re a Republican who has very special trees in her district that must be protected from personal liberty. It was a minor moment on the floor on Wednesday, but it was a telling one: Senator Lois Kolkhorst, she of bathroom bill fame, got assurance from Hall that his bill wouldn’t touch Section 240.909 of the Texas Local Government Code, a statute that “applies only to a county with a population of 50,000 or less that borders the Gulf of Mexico and in which is located at least one state park and one national wildlife refuge.” That’s Lege-speak for Aransas County, whose beautiful and iconic windswept oak trees you may have seen if you’ve ever vacationed in Rockport.

Windswept oak trees in Aransas County  ThingsPondered/Flickr

In 2009, Representative Geanie Morrison and Kolkhorst’s predecessor, Glenn Hegar, passed a bill allowing the Aransas County Commissioners Court to “prohibit or restrict the clear-cutting of live oak trees in the unincorporated area of the county.” It seems some unscrupulous people were clear-cutting the oak trees, upsetting the locals, diminishing property values and harming the tourist economy. Something had to be done: Personal liberties were chainsawing the shared values of the community.

Hall assured Kolkhorst that his bill wouldn’t touch Aransas County, an apparent exception to Liberty’s purchase on the other 253 counties in the state that he didn’t bother to explain. But when Senator Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, asked if an exception could be made for San Antonio’s ordinance, which he said helps keep the air clean, Hall balked. In politics, hypocrisy is cheap and hollering “liberty” to justify power politics comes cheap. But this Legislature still manages to surprise.

The bill passed the Senate 17-14.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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