Downed trees a rallying call for preservationists

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Dec. 27, 2017 at 9:42 p.m.
Updated Dec. 28, 2017 at 6 a.m.

A work crew from Quality Tree Service works to remove two oak trees on Santa Rosa Street on Christmas Eve, prompting neighbors to attempt to save the trees. They were unsuccessful.

A work crew from Quality Tree Service works to remove two oak trees on Santa Rosa Street on Christmas Eve, prompting neighbors to attempt to save the trees. They were unsuccessful.   Nicolas Galindo for The Victoria Advocate

After live oak trees were chopped down in Victoria on Christmas Eve, preservationists want City Council members to strengthen rules about historical districts.

City officials said Wednesday the owners of the trees at 107 S. DeLeon St. did not need permission to cut them down.

"There doesn't really appear to be anything in ordinance about a property owner needing to have a permit to trim or cut down trees that they own - and that's anywhere in the city," city spokesman O.C. Garza said.

Rick Madrid, the city's assistant director of development services, confirmed that.

American Electric Power also was not involved in the trees' removal because they did not affect nearby power lines.

"Any tree trimming we do would be in the right of way. We also don't remove the trees," spokeswoman Vee Strauss said.

But Helen Walker, the former county judge who lives at 407 E. Santa Rosa St., said the trees were planted in a 5-foot area known to be the city's easement.

Because of that location, she thinks the city's permission should have been sought.

However, Garza said there is no city easement at 107 S. DeLeon St.

"And while the trees were planted in the right of way, the maintenance of that right of way is the responsibility of the property owner, so they would not need the city's permission to maintain those trees or cut them down," he said.

Walker was among several neighbors who complained about the trees being cut down on Christmas Eve.

They said the trees not only added to the beauty and value of the area, but were historically significant.

Specifically, Gary Hall, chairman of the Victoria County Historical Commission, said the trees were planted in the 1930s by Victoria Mayor Ben Jordan for the purpose of making the city look more prominent to those who arrived from the Southern Pacific train depot and drove to the Denver Hotel.

Walker added Wednesday that Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Victoria in the 1940s and specifically remarked on the trees' beauty.

The property at 107 S. DeLeon St. is owned by Bud and Linda Hankins, according to the Victoria Central Appraisal District. The Hankins also could not be reached for comment.

They hired Quality Tree Service to remove a pecan tree, two palm trees, an anacua tree, crepe myrtles and two live oak trees.

Wednesday, Rika McDonald, the owner of the business, clarified why the trees were removed on Christmas Eve.

The neighbors had earlier suggested that the trees were removed on a holiday so they could not reach officials who could put a stop to it.

"We were supposed to start it on Friday, the 22nd, but because the forecast said there would be rain in the afternoon, my crew decided to wait until Saturday (the 23rd) and so that's when the job started," McDonald said. "It was supposed to be finished by Christmas Eve, so we did not purposely do anything so heinous. That's just where it fell on my schedule. We were booked prior and as soon as we wrapped up there, we moved straight onto another job, which they are doing now."

McDonald declined to say why the Hankins wanted the trees removed.

"I appreciate my customers. I have a very long list of loyal customers, and I am loyal to them in return, so in that regard, I choose not to comment," she said.

McDonald pointed out that Mayor Paul Polasek, Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor and the Victoria Police Department went to the property on Christmas Eve after the neighbors complained and found Quality Tree Service to be complying with all rules and regulations.

Neither Polasek nor O'Connor could be reached for comment, but Garza said this is true.

"(Acting Public Information Officer David) Brogger told me that when the police showed up, the sheriff was already there handling it and that they (the police) did not see anything that required them to stick around," Garza said. "To my knowledge, I'm not aware of anything happening there illegally."

Garza said in the almost two decades he's worked for the city, the City Council has never discussed requiring property owners to obtain permits before cutting down trees on their property, even trees of a certain age.

He thought the neighbors were confused because 107 S. DeLeon St. lies in one of Victoria's historical districts. But even in a historical district, there is no such requirement, he said.

Trees were a hot topic in Austin earlier this year.

Specifically, Gov. Greg Abbott called for legislators to pass a bill during the special session that would prevent cities from regulating what private property owners do with their trees.

Abbott called for this after the city of Austin prohibited him cutting down a pecan tree on his property.

State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and State Re. Paul Workman, R-Austin, answered Abbott's call and wrote identical bills to that effect. Neither made it to the point at which they could be voted on by both chambers of the Legislature, however.

The address, 107 S. DeLeon St., lies in the historical district known as the original town site, Garza said.

According to Advocate Archives, the Zahn House, which predates the Civil War, used to stand there.

In 2013, after the house had fallen into disrepair, Bud Hankins said he could no longer wait for someone to offer to move or restore it, so he got a permit to demolish it. He said he planed to build a new house in its place.

Then, too, preservationists rallied to save the Zahn house and got it moved to 301 S. Wheeler St.

Walker said while the trees that once stood beside the Zahn house may now be dead, the issue isn't.

"It's important we go to the City Council and strengthen the historical district ordinances so this can't happen in the future," she said.


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