Tree Houses in the Press

Aarrh! Pirate-Ship Treehouse May be Sunk by Zoning Broadside

Coastal Contractor Online
Aarrh! Pirate-Ship Treehouse May be Sunk by Zoning Broadside

When Pasadena, Md., homeowner Craig Federroll started building a treehouse for his kids overlooking the Magothy River near the coast, building codes and zoning were the furthest thing from his mind. Grieving for the recent death of his mother, reports the Maryland Gazette, Federroll just needed something to occupy his hands (“Building the Black Eyed Susan,” by Allison Bourg).

And for a long time, nobody seemed to mind, the paper reports — the play house, built to resemble a four-decker pirate ship, couldn’t be seen from the road (although passersby in boats on the water admired it).

But then a county inspector got a peek at it,” says the Gazette (an inspector caught sight of the pirate vessel while reviewing a neighbor’s plans for a pier). “And Federroll learned that the tribute to his mom, which he built without permits, is in violation of Critical Area laws. The county now wants him to get the right permits, about a year and a half after he built it.

Maryland’s Critical Area rules apply to “all land and water areas within 1,000 feet beyond the landward boundaries of tidal wetlands, the Bay and its tributaries,” according to a state website, and “all development and land-disturbing activities within the Critical Area are guided by specific provisions found in the State-adopted Critical Area Criteria and the local Critical Area programs. Those provisions cover issues from clearing trees and removing vegetation to limiting areas of impervious surface.” There’s also a “100-foot buffer along the shoreline to provide water quality benefits and an area of transition between upland and aquatic habitats,” the state site explains: “The Critical Area Buffer is measured 100 feet inland from mean high water, the landward extent of tidal wetlands, and the edge of tributary streams.” Typical violations, which towns are supposed to crack down on (perhaps with a $500-a-day fine) include clearing trees or brush, constructing “accessory structures (sheds, pools, etc.) in the Buffer,” and “disturbances” like grading activities, stockpiling of construction materials or dumping.”

That means treehouses too, Anne Arundel County officials say. “Due to the size and height of the treehouse, the county is considering it as an accessory structure,” Tracie Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Inspections and Permits, told the Gazette in an e-mail. “Therefore, the homeowner will also be required to get a variance.”

Believe it or not, this is not the first time a tree house has come under fire from the authorities in North America – and a pirate ship tree house, at that. In British Columbia in 2008, a Canadian judge ruled that a pirate-ship tree house designed and built by an architect had to come down because it was too close to the property line, the CBC News reported (“Pirate ship tree house sunk by court ruling”). Even imaginary pirates, evidently, are subject to real rules: as the CBC reported in that case, “provincial court Judge Connie Bagnall fined Andrew Dewberry [the architect] and Jayne Seagrave $250 each, for a total of $500,” CBC reported.

But a permit for a tree house? How typical is that? To find out, Coastal Connection called up Dan Wright, a professional builder and remodeler whose whole business is building tree houses. Dan’s the co-author of a book about tree houses (“Knack Treehouses: A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing & Building a Safe & Sound Structure,” by Lon Levin and Dan Wright). His company, Tree Top Builders, is based in Pennsylvania, but he also works a lot in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. “D.C. is a good market for us,” says Dan. “Every year I build three or four tree houses down there – usually out around the Beltway, in Potomac, or Silver Spring, places like that.”

Tree houses aren’t all casual structures, says Wright. “Most tree houses are very basic, and they’re for kids. But occasionally I’ve made them where the chief users have been adults, and it’s like a guest room, or it’s a place for the guys to play poker. I built one that was a yoga platform where a woman taught yoga classes, so it was a large platform big enough for 8 people to do yoga on.”

So what about permits? Says Dan, “That really depends on the individual home inspector who is interpreting the local applicable laws. I’ve gotten such varying responses when you call in and ask if you need a permit. For instance, I was just talking to a man in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who has had extensive communications with his city, and they say that as long as it’s under 400 square feet, they had nothing to say about it. If it was on the ground, they said it would have to comply with setbacks; but since it’s up in a tree he can do whatever he wants.” That’s relatively lenient, says Dan: “Most of the time when there is a maximum square footage that doesn’t need a permit, it’s usually around 120 or 100 square feet. In D.C., it’s around 80. If it’s under a certain size, typically it doesn’t need a permit. Most places, whether it’s on the ground or 100 feet up in the air, they are concerned about setbacks. But it varies. You just have to call and ask before you build.”

As for Craig Federroll’s situation, says Wright, “I’ve never built near waters like that. But maybe they are just sticking to the letter of the law. Maybe they’re really concerned about things disturbing the soil in the flood plain, and even though it is way up in the air, and has nothing to do with soil, they are just sticking to the letter of the law. But it’s hard to know what’s going on inside their heads. If that one inspector was in love with tree houses, maybe he could have said yes.”

Codes and zoning aside, you’re building a house that hangs off a tree — what about the engineering? “I design most of the things myself,” says Wright, “and the only time I would need an engineer is if the client or the township requests it. Or if it’s commercial in any way – then, yeah, we will have an engineer sign off on it.” Most engineers don’t want anything to do with tree houses, he says, but his favorite person to work with is Charlie Greenwood, an Oregon-based engineer who runs Treehouse Engineering. But he notes, “The trick is to find someone who is registered in the state you’re working in, and I work in a different state every month sometimes. So often, I’ll have Charlie Greenwood work in conjunction with a locally registered engineer.”

So what about Craig Federroll and his pirate ship in a tree, on the shore of the Magothy River? According to the Gazette, officials have not ordered him to take it down – just to apply for the proper permits. As for Federroll, he says he’s not planning on keeping the tree house forever anyway: “My kids will grow out of this in a few years, and then I’ll tear it down.”