Austin’s tree ordinance might disappear. Do you know what it does?

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Concerned that the rules concerning tree removal within city limits are unconstitutional, Gov. Greg Abbott is looking to axe all of Texas’ municipal tree ordinances in the special legislative session that started Tuesday.

Instituted in 1983, the city of Austin’s tree ordinance does not allow a person to remove a heritage tree or protected tree without a permit. The only exception is if a damaged tree is causing imminent danger to life or property.

Protected trees include any tree with a diameter of 19 inches at four and a half feet of height. Landowners or developers can apply for a permit online, and there is a submission fee for developers. Once submitted, a city inspector will survey the proposed removal site, according to the city of Austin website.

These are the consequences for violating the ordinance

  • A person who damages a public tree is liable to the City for the loss of tree value.
  • If the damage to a public tree results in treatment or removal of the tree, a person who damages the tree is liable for the cost of treatment or removal.
  • The urban forester may determine the tree value of a public tree and assess the cost against the person who caused the damage.
  • All damages collected will be deposited into the Planting for the Future Trust in Agency Fund to plant public trees.

Abbott, who has struggled with the city regarding trees on his own property in the past, called these ordinances “socialistic,” according to the Texas Tribune. The tree ordinance is one of several local control measures in Austin that the state has sought to limit with legislation in the past year, city officials have said.

Austin City Arborist Keith Mars said although there are more than 30 million trees in Austin, less than 1 percent of them meet the standard height and diameter to be a protected tree, adding that the majority of people applying for permits were not looking to actually remove any trees.

“The majority of reviews that we have are people who want to design around their trees,” Mars said. Most people come to us not wanting to remove trees but rather [want]us working with them to protect their trees.”

Trees’ local impact

In 2014, the city of Austin conducted studies to ascertain the importance of urban forests and sufficient tree coverage. According to a study by iTree Echo, public trees in Austin save the city millions of dollars in combined air quality improvement, stormwater runoff reductions and energy savings. Tree canopy covers 36 percent of Austin’s land, according to the study. Only 8 percent of trees are on public ground, the majority of trees growing on commercial land, the study showed.

“Definitely in terms of impact to the urban forest it’s largely from development activity,” Mars said.

The iTree Echo 2014 study included a graphic analyzing the benefits trees offer the city of Austin. (via iTree Echo 2014 study)

Why do some Austin trees have numbers on them?

Many trees around Austin bear a metal plate with a number on it called an identification tag that serves as a physical identifier. The tag is for use in site plans and surveys. It does not indicate a protected tree, according to the city of Austin’s website.

Mars said the ordinances were put in place to protect existing trees, rather than remove all of them and replant.

“We consider trees as being infrastructure,” Mars said. He added that trees protect structures from stormwater, add property value and shade houses enough to reduce energy bills by up to 30 percent.

“We certainly try to protect our oldest and our biggest trees, that’s what the ordinance is intended to do,” Mars said.

What is a heritage tree?

A tree that has a diameter of 24 inches or more, measured four and one-half feet above natural grade, and is one of the following species:

Ash, Texas

Cypress, Bald

Elm, American

Elm, Cedar

Madrone, Texas

Maple, Bigtooth

All Oaks

Pecan

Walnut, Arizona

Walnut, Eastern Black

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