AUSTIN — The grand old oak called Patsy Cline rises gracefully on three trunks. Waylon Jennings leans lazily before angling back toward the sun. And Willie Nelson, tall and broad, ascends on a torso three feet thick before bursting into a dense green canopy.
Citizens here named the trees in an effort to save more than a dozen of them — all protected under a city ordinance — that stand in the way of a planned new mixed-use development. It is the kind of quintessentially local battle that plays out in cities across the country, albeit one with a distinctly local flavor in this quirky, musically inclined town.
But here in Texas, the bigger battle over tree ordinances is whether they represent a form of local government overreach. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), citing grave worries about “socialistic” behavior in the state’s liberal cities, has called on Texas lawmakers to gather this month for a special session that will consider a host of bills aimed at curtailing local power on issues ranging from taxation to collecting union dues.
Texas presents perhaps the most dramatic example of the increasingly acrimonious relationship between red-state leaders and their blue city centers, which have moved aggressively to expand environmental regulations and social programs often against the grain of their states.
Republican state leaders across the country have responded to the widening cultural gulf by passing legislation preempting local laws. The best-known example is North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which was partially reversed this year. It was originally aimed at undercutting Charlotte’s efforts to expand civil rights laws to include LGBT people and to prevent cities from setting their own minimum wage.
But states also have gone after cities in more subtle ways. Ohio’s legislature last year attempted to block a Cleveland regulation that requires certain city contractors to hire local residents. A new Arizona law threatens to cut off funding to cities that take actions state officials deem to be in violation of state law.
“These preemption laws are designed to intimidate and bully local officials into doing the bidding of a smaller group of folks,” said Michael Alfano of the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions, a new nonprofit organization aimed at fending off state efforts to undermine local power.
Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization of Republican state officials, said preemption laws are coming up more and more because of political losses by Democrats at the state and federal levels.
Cities “seem to be sort of the last vanguard of Democratic and progressive ideals, which at this point continue to move leftward toward . . . a more socialist vision,” Walter said. Because cities and counties derive their power from the states, states are within their rights to rein in rogue local governments, he said.
The Texas special session has not been greeted kindly in the state capital of Austin, a liberal outpost where officials say they are being used as a political punching bag by Republican state lawmakers appealing to voters elsewhere in this conservative state.
A war of words has erupted between Abbott and city officials, with a city councilman calling Abbott “cowardly” for his approach to a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” — where officials refuse to help detain and deport those in the country illegally — and Abbott mocking the smell of Austin’s air.
“Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling different,” Abbott joked at a recent gathering of Republicans, referring to the county that includes Austin. “And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom. It’s the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas.”
The comments did not land well in this fast-developing city that boasts a high quality of life.
“The air in Austin is pretty sweet with an unemployment rate that is a point lower than the state, a lower violent crime rate than the state, with the highest rates of patents and venture capital in the state,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) shot back. “And the air is sweet with tacos.”
Adler has accused the governor of waging a “war on cities,” calling the state’s attempts to interfere with what local communities think work best for them “the height of micromanaging.”
“We do feel besieged here,” Adler said.
Republican state lawmakers counter that cities like Austin have gone too far in regulating citizens, and tree-hugging ordinances that limit what landowners can do with their own properties are a prime example.
Texas’s tree ordinance issue is among 20 agenda items Abbott wants lawmakers to consider at the special session that begins July 18. Other, far more hefty proposals, include a teacher pay raise, new abortion restrictions and a measure styled after North Carolina’s bathroom bill — by far the most controversial issue.
Also on Abbott’s agenda are measures to restrict the ability of cities and counties to raise property taxes, annex land, collect employee union dues and set rules for the use of cellphones while driving.
The session comes at a time when tensions between the state and some liberal Texas cities, including Austin, are rising over federal immigration enforcement. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure forcing sanctuary cities to help detain and deport those in the country illegally. Austin is among several cities suing the state over the new law.
Still, the tree issue has been an animating one in Texas, with multiple bills introduced during the regular session taking aim at local tree ordinances. A sponsor of one of the bills, Sen. Donna Campbell (R), said she is sympathetic to those who want to preserve their community’s greenery but that their preferences are “immaterial” when compared with property rights.
“When a person buys a piece of land, they buy everything on it and that includes the trees,” said Campbell, an emergency-room doctor whose district includes part of Travis County. Campbell has asked the attorney general to opine on whether tree ordinances are permitted under the Texas constitution.
Many Austin boosters say that if the air smells pleasant in Austin, it’s thanks to the trees, which cover nearly a third of the land in the city. The canopy has been preserved in part because of a long-standing ordinance that requires property owners to get permission — and sometimes pay a fee — before cutting down any tree greater than 19 inches in diameter on their own land.
The ordinance came up recently during heated debate about the Austin Oaks, an ambitious development that will bring housing, shops and glossy office space to a shady area in the northern part of town. It is marked by boxy office buildings built in the 1970s and 1980s, and expanses of parking lot shaded by sprawling old trees.
The proposal to shear the property of hundreds of trees, including about a dozen “heritage” oaks whose girth exceeds 24 inches, infuriated local residents, and they decided to make their displeasure known in distinctly Austin ways.
Idee Kwak, a music teacher, created a diorama of the property complete with tiny plastic trees. During a presentation at a city council meeting that bordered on performance art, she enlisted two helpers to rip out the trees and toss them on the ground, as cacophonous punk rock from the Nerv played in the background.
Another resident, Karen Sironi, a retired airline worker, decided to give names to each of the heritage trees in hopes of humanizing them for city officials. Most of the monikers were of country-western singers, though a few drew from other inspirations. When that didn’t work, she painted each tree’s portrait lined with black — to represent its death, she said.
In the end, the developer gained permission to remove all of the trees except Willie Nelson. On a recent morning, as the temperatures in Austin began their ascent to 100 degrees, Kwak and Sironi rested in the cool shade cast by the tree they called Lady Yoga, lamenting that anyone would consider taking her down.
Sironi said she has no patience with those who think Austin’s ordinance essentially bars landowners from cutting down their own trees. After all, she said, the developer here won.
“And what about my rights as a property owner to live in the kind of community I want?” she said. “That’s my right, too.”