Friday, September 22, 2023

City looks to amend burdensome tree rules while keeping Scenic City label


Despite a unanimous vote by the Planning and Zoning Commission to recommend changing parts of the city’s zoning ordinance related to tree preservation and conservation, the Granbury City Council chose instead to tap the brakes and delay the decision for three months.

The postponement is to allow city staff to conduct more in-depth research into how other cities are handling what, to Granbury, is both an important and complex issue.

Rules related to trees, landscaping, and masonry, while oftentimes controversial with developers who must foot the bill for such aesthetics, have made Granbury what many consider to be an attractive city, enhancing its number one industry: tourism.

The city became certified as a Scenic City in 2010 and was recertified in 2015 and 2020. It has a gold rating through the nonprofit Scenic Texas program, inspired by the beautification efforts of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson.

The city wants to keep that designation, especially since it is used by Visit Granbury in marketing promotions.

One of the criteria for being a Scenic City is having a tree preservation ordinance.

As a perk for Granbury’s involvement in the program, the city recently received an email with an offer of free saplings, according to Community Development Director Kira Wauwie.

But while there are advantages to being green, there are also challenges.

The state Legislature has been taking control away from local governments piece by piece and its reach has branched out to trees.

According to City Attorney Jeremy SoRelle, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law during the last legislative session doing away with tree ordinances. Cities that don’t have such an ordinance now cannot adopt one. For those who do have one, their ordinance is grandfathered in — at least for now.

Another challenge is that some developers and property owners feel that Granbury’s ordinance is overly burdensome, making their projects considerably more expensive.

City staff has recommended changes but how best to make those changes led to an almost hour-long discussion at a City Council meeting earlier this month.

SoRelle indicated that city staff is trying to find a “balance” that would appease developers while also holding true to the city’s commitment to trees.

But the suggestion to make tree preservation a voluntary option was viewed as potentially problematic. (According to Wauwie, the landscape section of the zoning ordinance would continue to be enforced.)

Council member Bruce Wadley expressed concern that making tree preservation voluntary would mean the rules would “lose their teeth.”

However, he also acknowledged a need for the tree ordinance to be revised “because of the burden” it has placed on the public.

He cited as an example someone intending to “revive an existing building” or build an addition, which “triggers the tree ordinance,” potentially requiring them to tear up a parking lot.

It was noted during the discussion that, rather than making tree preservation voluntary, developers could simply ask for a variance.

In such cases, the Zoning Board of Adjustment is the ultimate decision maker, not the City Council.

Even with that, though, there are problems.

Deputy City Manager Michael Ross said that developers must prove hardship when requesting a variance and the hardship “can’t be financial.”

It was also mentioned that the ZBA’s failure to grant a variance request could mean a challenge in district court.


Council member Eddie Rodriquez suggested delaying any action and directing city staff to research how other cities have handled tree ordinances.

Wauwie said that the proposal was based on “best practices” but that city staff had not done a “deep dive” where research was concerned.

“I don’t want to approve it, I don’t want to deny, I just think it needs to go back to staff (to) possibly give us some more options,” Rodriquez stated.

Ross commented, “There’s a very good chance that this (proposal) mirrors other cities.”

He also stated that staffers have “been hearing loud and clear” that the public would like the city to “make some kind of change.”

Mayor Pro Tem Trish Burwell commented that the 2001 ordinance, which was based on the city’s Comprehensive Plan, was revised in 2019 to help appease those who complained that the rules were “excruciatingly expensive.”

She also noted that some stipulations seem unfair, especially for developers of smaller projects, and that requirements are not always “aesthetically necessary.” She cited money spent by developers on trees and plants that end up dying because of water restrictions during droughts.

Burwell further stated that there are “just a lot of variables” involved and that no one knows “what’s coming down the pike” where the state is concerned.

The 88th Legislature is currently in session.

“We’re a tree city,” Burwell said. “It’s a pretty city. And I think the folks coming in here naturally want their development to look appealing and in line with what’s in Granbury now, for a reason. That’s why they come here — because we’re an aesthetically pleasing city.”

Ross said that the city will have power to negotiate tree preservation with developers “when they need specific things from us.”

Burwell indicated agreement, commenting that tax abatements give the city “more control.”

Council member Stephen Vale made a motion in accordance with Rodriquez’s suggestion that city staff conduct more research. His motion included that the findings be brought before the council at its regular meeting on Tuesday, April 4.

Burwell seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.


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