AUSTIN (KXAN) — Last week’s ice storm felled many trees and dropped branches, sometimes pulling down power lines and blocking accessways, leading to questions about preventative trimming.
Kelsey Vance, an Austin resident, says that branches from two large trees pulled down her power lines and dropped branches on her home during last week’s ice storm.
She says that she tried to prevent this in 2021, asking the city to trim trees near her electrical lines. City workers did remove some smaller trees, Vance said, but they left the largest trees untouched.
“Those were the ones I had the biggest concern about because of how big they are,” Vance said. “I talked to the arborist and he was like, ‘Well, those are, those are heritage trees, so we can’t touch them, you’ll have to work with the city to understand what you need to do with those.'”
The city arborist’s office, a part of the City of Austin’s Developmental Services Department, defines heritage trees as having a diameter of at least 24 inches and of a specific species: any oak, Arizona Walnut, American Elm, Bald Cypress, Bigtooth Maple, Cedar Elm, Eastern Black Walnut, Pecan, Texas Ash or Texas Madrone.
Under the city ordinances, these trees cannot be removed unless the tree “is dead or is a hazard to life or property.” In such cases, property owners must submit a permit application and related fees to the city arborist before removing the trees.
But for Vance and others who want to trim their trees, the rules become opaque.
“I tried to submit a request, just to have…a consult based on you know, fire hazard, and I also mentioned the electrical lines,” Vance said. “I was, in my case, assigned to an arborist. However, he responded to me saying, ‘you know, we need more information, your case isn’t closed.'”
Vance sent that extra info but never heard back. She tried, over the course of several months, to follow up via weekly calls and email requests. However, nothing happened; she gave up for a while.
Then, she received an email in October 2022 about Austin’s “Tree Smart” classes. She went with her father, and they approached a city employee after the session.
“They just kind of never answered a question, and told us we needed to go back to the arborist,” Vance said. “What I’m struggling with from these heritage trees is getting information on what can be done to keep the trees trimmed so they’re not impeding the electrical lines. Because that ultimately [was] one of those tree limbs pulled my electrical lines off of the side of the house.”
The heritage trees in Vance’s yard are still standing, and still have branches looming over the power lines. She hopes that the city will start to take more notice of residents like her, and offer better information about heritage tree trimming.
“There’s no information that’s helpful to us homeowners who have those heritage trees on their property and don’t necessarily want to do anything with them,” Vance said. “Maybe the city just needs to come out and see if there is, in fact, a fire hazard. There’s just no roadmap for those kinds of situations that I have come across.”
The Developmental Services Department told KXAN on Thursday that heritage trees damaged by the storm can be removed before seeking a permit, but ask for residents to seek a permit afterwards and provide documentation of the tree’s condition and size.
“While the City works to ensure healthy heritage trees are protected, even our largest trees are vulnerable to storm damage,” said an Austin Developmental Services spokesperson in an email. “That damage can create a safety hazard, so trees of any size that are dead or an imminent hazard can be removed immediately.”