A victory for Texas trees — and for local control

Texas Tribune
By Robin Schneider

When Gov. Abbott issued his call for a special legislative session this summer, he only included one environmental issue: eliminating local tree protection ordinances in over 110 Texas cities. This gave Texas environmentalists a unique opportunity to organize an all-hands-on-deck effort focused on defending Texas trees and local democracy.

And you know what? We won.

Abbott pushed hard for this pre-emption legislation, calling local ordinances “socialistic,” a pretty big surprise for communities with tree protection rules like Mineral Wells, Mansfield and League City — hardly bastions of left wing politics.

In reality, trees minimize flooding, prevent erosion, reduce energy costs, raise property values and improve air quality. Some research indicates that they may even help keep crime rates low. Irresponsible tree removal threatens neighboring properties, but it can make big bucks for builders and developers.

Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Someone has to balance these conflicting property rights, and local governments have been doing that for years now. Yet Abbott and other bill supporters never suggested that the state would take up that responsibility after kicking cities out of the picture. That would mean no balance, and would allow big developers to do whatever they want to homeowners and others.

This put the tree issue into the same context as a variety of other issues considered in the special session, a debate over the proper role of local governments. But when it came to trees we stopped this effort dead in its tracks. Local tree conservation non-profits, arborists, landscape architects, local government officials, environmentalists and citizen groups all came together to press our legislators to stand against the unwise legislation.

We also got a big boost from the U.S. military when retired Marine Gen. Juan Ayala — San Antonio’s director of Military Affairs — argued that local ordinances make it easier to train on base without being a nuisance for their neighbors.

In the end, it was an effective, broad coalition focused on communities outside of Austin, mobilizing the most active citizens and leveraging the influence of mayors and city councils over their legislators that made victory possible. In less than 30 days, more than 5,000 Texans emailed their legislators through an online petition, and they made more than 1,800 telephone calls to legislative offices. Several dozen came to our Lorax storytime at the Capitol, and about half of those folks stuck around to deliver copies of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to lawmakers.

By working closely with folks based all over Texas, reaching out through various networks and pounding the pavement from Benbrook to Port Neches, we made it so that many legislators would rather not deal with the possible fallout back at home if they voted the wrong way. As a result the main pre-emption bill — House Bill 70 — never came up in the House and three Republicans voted against its Senate companion — Senate Bill 14 — in the other chamber.

Later, when it became clear that the House would only tolerate HB 7, a compromise bill on tree removal mitigation fees, the Senate tried to hijack it — going so far as to change its caption, which describes the fundamental reason for the bill — with pre-emption language. That prompted another Republican, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, to vote against the bill.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, didn’t tolerate the Senate’s scheme, and after an extraordinary Sunday night vote, HB 7 was restored to language nearly identical to a compromise bill the governor had vetoed earlier in the summer. This time he signed it, and all our local tree protections still stand.

Like most legislative victories, we didn’t get everything that we wanted. That would have meant no changes in state law whatsoever. But the legislative process worked the way it is supposed to, channeling public input and important interests into a system that takes them all into account, producing consensus policies that make Texas a better place to live.

Nobody will accuse us of a naive or idealistic notion that this is the way things normally work, but we hope we might have struck on a model that works for bringing out the best in Texas.

The key to making it happen? Heeding the words of the Lorax himself: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” We’re grateful to the thousands of Texans who cared a whole awful lot in the special session, and look forward to speaking for the trees in the next session too.

Robin Schneider is the Executive Director at Texas Campaign for the Environment

Council to consider changes for waste disposal contracts

Austin Monitor
By Jack Craver
Original article here

A series of recommendations made by a City Council working group seeks to address concerns from environmentalists and private waste haulers about how the city chooses the companies it pays to pick up and dispose of waste generated by its own employees and departments, from wastepaper bins at City Hall to giant piles of sludge created by wastewater treatment facilities.

For now, the main outcome of the Waste Management Policy Working Group, which included four Council members and a number of industry stakeholders and environmental activists, is a proposal to make changes to the city’s Anti-Lobbying Ordinance.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who chaired the working group, said that she plans to bring forward a draft ordinance in the coming weeks that will clarify the types of communications that haulers with existing contracts are allowed to have with city staff and city officials if they are also bidding on new contracts.

In addition, the proposed ordinance will reduce the penalties imposed on contractors found to have violated the policy. Currently, violators can be barred from bidding for city contracts, a consequence that some have argued is far too harsh a punishment for what in many cases could simply be a mistake or misunderstanding by an employee of what in many cases are small businesses.

“The idea of locking people out of city business because of a couple of mistakes is a dangerous thing,” said Andrew Dobbs, an organizer for Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Texas Disposal Systems, a prominent waste hauler, has declined to bid on a number of waste contracts recently, arguing that the Anti-Lobbying Ordinance prevents it from effectively making its case to be awarded the deal. Texas Disposal Systems representatives have nevertheless attended Council meetings to argue against approving contracts with other companies, earning it criticism for bullying and obstructionism from those other companies.

In response to the lobbying concerns, Council voted in April to temporarily suspend the anti-lobbying ordinance for waste contracts. The working group recommends that the suspension remain in place until Council revises the ordinance.

The working group also suggests the city tweak its solicitation policies to favor small, local businesses. Currently, a major national company with operations within city limits may be getting more credit for being “local” than a small business based just outside of the city.

Other recommendations from the working group focused on getting waste contracts back in line with Council’s stated environmental policy objectives. Over the last year, Council has rejected a number of contracts after objections were raised by the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, the citizen panel charged with guiding the city toward its goal of dramatically reducing the amount of landfill waste it generates.

In February, for instance, Council unanimously rejected a $7.7 million contract with Republic Services, a Phoenix-based hauler, despite its recommendation by city staff.

One of the principal objections was that the company proposed dumping the waste in the Austin Community Landfill, a site in Northeast Austin that has been a longtime target of complaints from nearby residents and whose controversial expansion Travis County tried unsuccessfully to block in court.

In addition, Texas Disposal Systems objected to the size of the contract, arguing that the city was trying to consolidate a number of different waste services under one contract, departing from the tradition of divvying up the city waste hauling business among a number of different companies.

The working group did not issue a recommendation on the merits of consolidating more contracts but instead called for more analysis of the costs and benefits of such a move.

“Consolidation may create economies of scale and better reporting capacity; however, it also may have undesired effects on the ability of small vendors to compete,” the document stated.

One option that nobody at City Hall appears to be considering is letting the city deal with its waste on its own, rather than contracting with private haulers. The city’s own garbage collection service, Austin Resource Recovery, only serves single-family residences and multifamily properties with four units or fewer. As a result, the city has to hire private haulers to pick up its trash, just like commercial and multifamily properties.

Kaiba White, a member of the Zero Waste Advisory Commission who works on energy and environmental policy for Public Citizen, a progressive advocacy group, noted that the city would have to make a big capital investment in equipment and vehicles if it wanted to do its trash collection in-house or to expand its services to apartment buildings and private businesses. But in the long term, she said, the city might be better off, financially and environmentally.

“Right now people in single-family housing receive various educational outreach about recycling and composting,” she said. “Whereas people in multifamily housing, it’s up to the company. You’re lucky if you have the service and you’re lucky if (the Dumpster’s) not filled up right away.”

Dobbs said an expansion of Austin Resource Recovery’s current responsibilities would be a non-starter politically. The balance the city has currently struck with private haulers was “the product of years of stakeholder engagement,” he said. For the city to change course would be seen as a “rollback of all the efforts.”

Pool also dismissed the idea, noting the upfront cost to the city and the prospect of undercutting local businesses.

“Frankly there’s an industry in Austin that’s been doing it for decades,” she said, “and it would have a significant impact on their livelihood.”

This story has been corrected to include the fact that ARR serves multifamily properties with four units or fewer. Photo by David Villa made available through a Creative Commons license.

What Environmentalists Are Hoping For In A New City Recycling Contract

Houston Public Media
By Abner Fletcher

The City of Houston’s recycling contract ends in 2018. Some environmentalists are hoping for some specific things to be a part of the next one.

In the coming days, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council are set to hear proposals from recycling companies that could form a new recycling contract with the city once the current one ends in 2018.

The advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment has been following the process closely and is eager to see Houston take advantage of the economic incentives of recycling.

Joshua Zinn spoke with Rosanne Barone, the Houston Program Director for TCE, about the current state of recycling in Houston, the possibilities of implementing a Zero Waste Plan, and what her organization would like to see come out of a new recycling contract.

Editorial: State of Texas, stay out of our trees!

Waco Tribune-Herald Editorial
Original article here

Again taking a cue from Gov. Greg Abbott’s vow to call out those state legislators who defy his agenda during the Texas Legislature’s ongoing special session, we call out legislators who supposedly represent our area but are more intent on undermining local control. That means calling out Sen. Brian Birdwell for complying with Abbott’s demand that the state uproot local tree ordinances — a matter ideally left to town councils and the neighborhood folks who elect them. By contrast, Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal support a more thoughtful approach respectful of local control.

The governor demands state lawmakers gut any locally approved ordinance that prevents or discourages one from cutting down trees on his or her property. The scenario closely parallels what we saw recently in a battle regarding short-term vacation rentals in Waco — a classic case of property rights versus neighborhood sentiment in which the Waco City Council ultimately sided with neighborhoods after a strong push by angry residents of the historic (and tree-shrouded) Castle Heights and Karem Park neighborhoods.

And that’s the big problem with the governor’s edict. Some neighborhoods are very defensive about preserving a broad canopy of trees — not only because trees improve air quality and prevent soil erosion but also because mature trees shield yards and homes from intense summer sun and add a picturesque quality absent from developments where trees are clear-cut from the landscape.

In testimony before the Senate Business & Commerce Committee, Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment acknowledged that some ordinances may be “out of whack” in certain demands they make of homeowners. However, this would seem to justify individuals working with their elected council members to improve or revise such ordinances. And, he said, if the state must assume a role, it could best help by setting reasonable parameters for all. But simply scrapping any ordinance that blocks or deters tree-cutting “seems like we’re falling off the other side of the horse.”

Jaye Russell, a real-estate agent who testified before the same committee, asked how the state’s zeal to supersede local control would help Texas. (She never received an answer.) She also questioned any supposed populist push to fell local tree ordinances, given few such individuals were in evidence to testify: “I’ve heard here anecdotal stories [from legislators] about people who have been harmed by these local community ordinances. I don’t see any of them here today. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know their names. I’m assuming they had real problems and that happens. Nothing’s perfect.”

The message was clear: The Senate bill is more a big favor to home builders and developers than individual homeowners. Then she went on to outline how fallen trees in her area can impact her property in terms of flooding and soil erosion.

“Many cities have chosen not to have tree preservation ordinances, and that’s perfectly OK because each Texas city is unique,” said Live Oak Mayor Mary Dennis, president of the Texas Municipal League. “The city of Live Oak does have a tree ordinance that we passed in 2000 and I’m very glad to say we have been designated a Tree City USA. And we have an Arbor Day where arborists come out and we give trees away to our residents and this has worked really well for our city.” She also decried state intrusion into local affairs.

The Trib editorial board has mixed feelings about what should and should not be in any ideal tree ordinance. (The city of Waco offers a broad tree guideline, urging “avoidance of clear-cutting outside necessary construction areas.”) But we ultimately believe this is the business of cities, communities and their elected councils — not some state-ordained, one-size-fits-all law covering an expanse as environmentally diverse as Texas. (Our state has at least 13 ecologically different terrains.) So-called heritage trees might be important in places such as windswept West Texas — or perhaps not important at all. But for Austin-based lawmakers to kowtow to deep-pocketed home-builder associations is not only overreach but something far worse.

Birdwell, a Granbury Republican, earns an F from us for doing the bidding of Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to the exclusion of local control. We give Republicans Anderson and Kacal a B for supporting a more nuanced compromise plan in the House, allowing those who cut down trees to at least partially address city tree mitigation fees by planting yet other trees (with many of the specifics left to the cities themselves and even tree experts). We appreciate this considerate approach. However, the Senate bill is a glaring abuse of state power and yet another attack on local control.

Seuss-inspired story tells Texans to ‘speak for the trees’

KXAN Austin
By Wes Rapaport
Watch the story here

AUSTIN — Tree activists of all ages joined forces at the Texas State Capitol to save the trees, with the help of lawmakers and Dr. Seuss.

Rep. Carol Alvarado, D- Houston, and Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, read The Lorax to constituents under the shade of a historic oak on the Capitol Grounds on Wednesday.

The book details the struggles of the environment, targeted by corporate greed. The Lorax character speaks on behalf of the trees.

The bipartisan reading aimed to “stand in opposition to current anti-tree legislation,” including House Bill 70, organizers said.

“These bills would wipe out these protections and let developers and others just wipe out trees all over Texas,” Andrew Dobbs, legislative director for Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “This is something we’ve got to stop.”

“There’s some very powerful lobbies that want to be able to cut down trees wherever they want, whenever they want, for whatever reason they want, and local governments have decided that in terms of protecting property owners from floods, from erosion, to be able to protect us from high energy costs, we have established local ordinances to protect trees and to regulate how they’re managed,” Dobbs said.

“The Senate bill I think is very overreaching, and has a lot of preemption in it, and won’t stand tall,” Alvarado told reporters. “We already passed the tree bill, and this is what everybody has agreed to, and this is what should be the law, and we hope that Governor Abbott signs it.”

“We just feel like the people that live and work and invest their time and their talent, raise their family there, that they know best how to order their own lives and what’s important to them, and they have their priorities,” Faircloth stated. “We have public elections for local representation, and as she has said, we’ve passed a common-sense bill that was agreed upon by the members of the House. We’re not sure what the Senate will do or how it will play out, but I think what we found is the best alternative to solve this issue.”

Others advocate local control over tree ordinances violate the property rights of landowners.

Sen. Donna Campbell, R- New Braunfels, requested an opinion from the Texas Attorney General over the issue, saying the legislature “must ensure that city bureaucrats and central planners are not infringing on local citizens’ liberty.”

“City tree ordinances are some of the most egregious examples of property rights violations in our state, affecting millions of property owners in Texas,” Campbell said in a news release on June 12.

After listening to The Lorax, participants of Wednesday’s reading delivered copies of the book to several lawmakers, urging them to vote against legislation they say would threaten Texas trees.

It’s important to protect the trees and so we can breathe,” said elementary-schooler Elizabeth Luck. “I’m happy that trees are here and that we can keep the trees safe.”

Dr. Seuss book used to rally for Tree Ordinances

Fox 7 Austin
By Rudy Koski
Watch the story here

Governor Abbott made cracking down on local tree laws part of his call for the special session because he believes they can violate private property rights. Wednesday, a group of tree advocates came to the state capitol to keep those laws firmly planted in place.

Under the canopy of an oak tree, on the east side of the Texas capitol, the words from a popular Dr. Seuss book could be heard Wednesday morning. The reading from the Book, The Lorax, was done by state representatives Wayne Faircloth ( R ) Galveston and Carol Alvarado ( D ) Houston.

“One morning I came to this glorious place, and I first saw the trees,” read Alvarado.

Several parents and their children listened as the 2 lawmakers from two different political parties took part in this rally for trees. “I’m the Lorax who speaks for the Trees, which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please,” read Faircloth.

Faye L. Holland brought her three children to the event.

“I was just really happy it was a republican and a democrat that were talking together, because I just like bipartisanship so much, it gives me hope,” said Holland.

The gathering was organized to throw shade on Governor Abbott’s Call to cut back local tree ordinances.

“We don’t need a City Council of Texas, we’ve got our local city councils that are best able to balance the interest of property owners in their communities and we need to respect their ability to do that,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Lizzy Milani, one of the kids at the event, has seen the movie adaption of the Book, but this is the first time she has had it read to her. The lesson of the book, according to her, is very clear.

“You’ve got to take care of trees, because if you don’t bad things will happen, because that area was ugly in that illustration,” said Milani who came to the reading with her mom and younger sister.

Legislation to prevent a tree ordinance from being enforced on a homeowner’s private property has already cleared the Senate. A similar Bill is pending in the House. But a different compromise Bill, drafted by Rep. Dade Phelan, has already moved out of House Chamber.

“It’s not a Republican, or Democrat, liberal or conservative; it’s really a Regional issue,” said Rep. Phelan.

Phelan’s HB7, allows property owners to offset mitigation fees if they replant what they cut.

“So the city gets trees, they get half the fee, and the property owner gets to reduce their overhead, whether they are developing it or it’s their home, say they want to add on a garage or swimming pool, it will reduce those fees in half,” said the Republican from Port Neches.

The fate of Phelan’s bill remains as uncertain as that of the trees in the story of The Lorax. But those at the rally, like the characters in the book, believe as they meet with lawmakers – some seeds of hope will be planted.

Opponents of Texas tree bills ‘speak for the trees’ at Capitol

KVUE Austin
By Ashley Goudeau
Watch the story here

AUSTIN – The groups Texas Campaign for the Environment and Defend Texas Trees held an event outside the Capitol Wednesday to oppose bills filed in the Special Session related to trees.

Representatives Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) and Wayne Faircloth (R-Galveston) read Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” to a group of kids under one of the historic oak trees on the Capitol grounds. In the story, the Lorax speaks up for trees that are being cut down and advises against destroying the trees.

The event was held in opposition to Senate Bill 14 and House Bill 70 which prohibit cities from making ordinances regulating cutting down trees on private property.

Representatives Alvarado and Faircloth said on this issue, they support local control.

“We just feel like the people that live and work and invest their time and their talent to raise their families there, they know best of how to order their own lives and what’s important to them,” Faircloth said.

The House did approve House Bill 7 (HB7) which creates a tree planting credit to offset the fees cities charge for removing trees. Faircloth calls it a common sense bill that everyone can agree with.

The Senate Committee on Business & Commerce has scheduled a public hearing on HB7 for August 4 at 9:00 a.m.

The language of HB7 passed in the House and Senate during the regular session, but was vetoed by the Governor.

Senate Bill 14 has passed in the Senate and is awaiting a committee assignment in the House. A public hearing was held on House Bill 70 but it was left pending in committee.