The Austin City Council unanimously approved the staff recommendation of the heritage tree ordinance on all three readings on Thursday, February 4, 2010, making it more difficult to remove certain trees 24″ or greater in diameter. Trees larger than 24″ but smaller than 30″ will require an administrative variance prior to removal, and trees larger than 30″ will require a land-use commission public hearing before a variance is granted.

RECA came out in opposition to the public hearing component of the ordinance. Despite RECA’s testimony and strong showing at City Hall, Council kept the public hearing process in the ordinance. Council Members amended the ordinance with the following changes:

  • Include a tree list in the ordinance that will be subject to future modifications by rule, if necessary. RECA advocated for the inclusion of a tree list in the ordinance.
  • Grant flexibility in the heritage tree variance language by allowing for exceptions if the removal of that tree will result in “a design that will allow for the maximum provision of ecological service, historic, and cultural value from the tree.” RECA advocated for more flexible removal criteria.
  • Require monthly reporting from the City Arborist to the Urban Forestry Board on tree removals between 24″ and 30″ instead of public hearings for those trees. RECA advocated against public hearings for those trees.
  • Allow for multi-stem measurements. However, a public hearing would only be required for trees with at least one stem greater than 30″. RECA opposed multi-stem measurements, but this amendment will not increase the number of public hearings.
  • Remove certain exemptions for electric utilities. RECA was neutral on this aspect of the ordinance.

The final point of contention was the standard of removal for protected trees. City staff and RECA encouraged Council to keep that standard as denying “a reasonable use” of one’s property to allow for removal. Tree advocates asked for the denial of “all reasonable uses” before a tree could be removed. Council agreed with the RECA position.

It is also important to note that Council moved forward with the staff recommended version of the ordinance as opposed to Planning Commission’s version. Tree advocates testified in favor of the Planning Commission’s version, which would have been more onerous towards property owners.

The heritage tree ordinance will now be subject to a rules process to determine mitigation rates for heritage trees, potential stiffer penalties for illegal removal of trees, and how to interpret the following removal criteria: “a design that will allow for the maximum provision of ecological service, historic, and cultural value from the tree.” RECA will be engaged in this rules process.

RECA has been involved in this issue for several years now, and special thanks goes out to Jeff Howard, Peter Cesaro, Paul Linehan, Aan Coleman, Keith Donahoe, and Jim Schissler for all of their hard work in advocating on behalf of RECA during this process. Without them, this ordinance would have been worse. Special thanks also to Board Members and the entire LDC class for showing up at City Hall to support the RECA members who testified at Thursday’s public hearing.