By Phil Crone
Executive Officer, Dallas Builders Association
Everyone loves trees, so why are they so controversial? They are the focus of years of back and forth in the Texas legislature and the subject of intense debate at several city halls and neighborhood meetings in the Dallas area.
It may come as a surprise to some that when you purchase land, the city can require that trees come at an additional cost if they must be removed to make way for your home site. If you happen to be building in South Dallas, the cost for tree removal can approach or exceed the price of the land itself. These fees do not come from the world’s most expensive logging company; instead, they come in the form of mitigation fees assessed by the city based on the size and species of the trees that need to be removed.
At issue is an attempt to balance the rights of property owners to make the highest and best use of the land they purchased against the community’s interest in the environment we all share. Recent stories have highlighted the extremes. A contractor is likely facing a hefty fine for inexplicably topping more than 30 live oak trees on Forest Lane in Northwest Dallas without first obtaining a permit. In McKinney, a property owner and former city council member is involved in an expensive court battle over an inexplicable $44,800 fine assessed by the city for clearing out (as described by the city) “decades of accumulated weeds, underbrush, trash, fallen limbs and dead trees as well as saplings less than six inches in diameter.”
These stories illustrate how difficult it is to find a political solution that strikes the aforementioned balance. The actions of the contractor and the City of McKinney are each impossible to justify and serve as great examples for those on either side of the issue to cite. Lost in the madness of these stories and Governor Abbott’s inclusion of trees in the upcoming special legislative session is the fact that a compromise was found in the form of SB 744.
Instead of focusing on the cost of tree mitigation, SB 744 provided property owners with incentives for reforestation. The bill required a 50 percent reduction in tree mitigation fees if the property owner planted qualifying replacement trees of at least 2 inches in diameter. Cities retained broad latitude to enforce their existing ordinances. The bill unanimously passed both chambers of the Legislature. Yes, you read that right; something on a subject this controversial actually passed our Texas legislature without a single dissenting vote.
On June 15, the bill, and its corresponding protections for property owners, was vetoed by Governor Abbott. The Governor instead favors the fool’s errand of obtaining an outright abolition of tree ordinances in a special session call that also includes bathrooms, abortions, property taxes, and school finance. Good luck with that!
Everyone loves trees. Good public policy would dictate saving the biggest and the best by assigning hefty mitigation fees while providing bona fide incentives to replace those that need to be removed during the development process (as SB 744 would have done). Instead, the City of Dallas is currently considering a proposal that would double current fees and add Hackberries to the list of trees that require a fee in order to be removed. With the vast majority of undeveloped wooded land located in South Dallas, trees will continue to generate plenty of controversy.