Heritage Tree Ordinance Takes Root

Tree lovers stand their ground – and win

Heritage Tree Ordinance Takes Root
Illustration by Leah Lovise

It's now a little harder to cut down a tree in Austin. In a unanimous vote last week, the City Council passed a so-called Heritage Tree Ordinance, which aims to tighten restrictions on the cutting of very large, mature trees.

Trees with a trunk diameter of 19 inches or more were already considered protected trees in Austin, but neighborhood and environmental activists complained that the ordinance lacked teeth. Developers and others who might want a large tree removed, they said, could simply chop the tree and hope not to get caught or pay the fine as a cost of doing business, and city staff was too quick to grant variances. So last week, after a two-hour public hearing (preceded by months of being vetted by various boards and commissions), the council approved an ordinance creating the category of heritage trees, defined as 24 inches or greater in diameter. It was, according to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the first updating of the tree protection ordinance in 27 years.

Heritage trees can now only be removed if granted a waiver by the director of the Plan­ning and Development Review Department; that waiver can only be granted if the applicant has already been denied other variances that would eliminate the need for the tree's removal, or if removal would result in "maximum ecological service" or "cultural value" from the trees preserved.

And if the tree in question is larger than 30 inches in diameter, it gets even harder: The same conditions still apply, but it would require a hearing before and permission from the city's Land Use Commission. (It's still hard to say if the new ordinance will stop illegal cutting, however, as the city says it's prohibited by state law from levying a fine of greater than $2,000 per tree.)

That latter point was the key point of contention at the Feb. 4 public hearing, with developers – led by the Real Estate Council of Austin – arguing that hearings could result in decisions being made for political reasons, rather than professional ones, and that trees could simply become proxies for bashing unpopular developments. "RECA has consistently voiced its support of a heritage tree ordinance with stronger removal requirements, stronger mitigation, and stronger enforcement," RECA Vice President Jeff How­ard told the council. "In fact, we actually support much, if not most, of the ordinance that's in front of you tonight." However, Howard argued that homeowners plant the new urban forest through reforestation, and that simply being large isn't enough – "heritage tree" should refer only to "iconic" trees. Anything less, he warned, could result in hundreds of hearings per year, overburdening staff and adding to homebuyers' costs.

Architect Aan Coleman said she worked on the Southpark Meadows shopping center that preserved or transplanted many trees on the site, mostly heritage-size trees, costing $300,000 in transplants. "Unfortunately, one majestic heritage-size tree was removed," Coleman said. "Just one. This project was awarded the 2007 State of Texas Tree Preservation Award by the Arboriculture Society of Texas and won a 2008 Texas Chapter American Society of Land­scape Architecture Award for the same reason. ... But under this new ordinance, this project too would be subject to a public hearing even though it's done that well."

In the end, though, the council ended up more swayed by arguments from environmental activists, some in rebuttal to Howard's points. "This ordinance is not about preserving picture-perfect historic icons for promotional literature," said Corey Walton, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Coun­cil, though he was signed up as "neutral" on the ordinance. "It's about the economic value in preserving the superior functioning benefits that these trees provide in terms of erosion control, shade and air quality compliance, and, yes, property values and enhancements." Shannon Halley, vice chair of the Urban Forestry Board, echoed that point and added, "Trees or no trees, people will oppose unpopular developments, and rather than oppose ordinances that promote our values as a city, maybe [RECA] should try to spend more time creating less unpopular developments."

The council ended up adding amendments that were stronger than staff recommendations, including eliminating provisions that made the law more lax on city utilities, requiring a monthly report by the city arborist to the Urban Forestry Board, and allowing multiple stems to count toward the 24 inches, rather than just a single one.

The ordinance came as a relief to Central Austin doyenne Dorothy Richter. "I'm getting too old to stand out in front of a bulldozer, as I did 20 years ago at the Hyde Park Fire Station," she told the council, to great applause.

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