Brothers hit the pavement to save treehouse

2012-11-24T00:00:00Z 2012-12-05T19:54:35Z Brothers hit the pavement to save treehouseBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

For his birthday last April, 8-year-old Logan Olson had a big wish granted. As a bonus, he also received a heck of a civics lesson.

His wish was for a treehouse. The civics lesson came when his family was informed that the treehouse violated city zoning regulations.

Logan and his parents, Scott and Kacey Olson, his grandparents and his brother Dillon, 12, built the elaborate treehouse in the front yard of the Olsons' house at 1907 Beverly Hill Blvd.

By late June, Logan and Dillon had a solidly built, 17-foot-high, 80-square-foot treehouse with a deck on three sides.

"I wasn't expecting something that big," Logan said.

It quickly became a popular hangout for Logan, Dillon and their friends. The boys and their mother have also used it for occasional sleepouts. There's even a pulley with a basket attached for hoisting up food and other supplies. They keep it padlocked when it's not in use.

The treehouse is so impressive that when his mother held a garage sale this summer, Dillon offered treehouse tours for 25 cents. He said four or five people took him up on the offer.

The civics lesson began in late September, when somebody lodged a complaint with the city's Building Division because the Olsons hadn't obtained a building permit.

As it turned out, they didn't need one. Nicole Cromwell, the city's zoning coordinator, said permits are unnecessary for buildings of less than 120 square feet. There was another problem, however.

Although a "structure" technically is a building on the ground, the treehouse does have four wooden support beams, which qualifies it as an "accessory structure," and zoning rules say accessory structures have to be set back at least 20 feet from the property line. The closest post is 5 feet, 6 inches from the front property line.

When the city notified the Olsons of the violation, Logan and Dillon swung into action.

They had been watching their mother through the summer and fall as she worked to bring streetlights to their stretch of Beverly Hill Boulevard. She had walked the area gathering signatures on a petition, and early this fall she hosted a neighborhood picnic to explain the proposal again and gather signatures from anyone she missed.

Her sons asked if they could mount a similar campaign to save their treehouse. Over three days — once in a rainstorm — they and several friends knocked on doors for many blocks around, eventually gathering 61 signatures of people supporting a variance for their treehouse.

As Dillon explained it, their pitch was straightforward. He told people, "If you think it's a good idea that we should keep our treehouse, you should sign this."

Their mother said one person didn't like the treehouse — "I can respect that," she said — and one other person refused to sign the petition and suggested that they burn the treehouse down. Kacey thinks he was just tired of people knocking on his door.

"It was a bad time of year to do it because of all the political stuff," she said.

Everyone else was friendly and supportive. One man gave her and the boys vegetables from his garden; a woman gave them fresh-baked cookies.

"It's been a great way to get to know people better," Kacey said.

She also wrote a letter to the city Board of Adjustment, formally requesting a variance from the setback requirements. Kacey and her sons will go before the board on Dec. 5.

She explained in her letter that they couldn't build a treehouse in the backyard because the only tree there is an evergreen. And though they unknowingly violated the law, she said, most of their neighbors don't seem to mind.

Cromwell, the zoning coordinator, said all code complaints have to be investigated, however trivial some may seem. In this case, she said, seeking a variance is probably the easiest way to resolve the issue.

She said she is inclined to recommend granting the variance, based on the likelihood that variances for other accessory structures have been granted in the neighborhood.

"It's not out of character for the neighborhood," she said.

Whatever happens, Kacey is proud of the way her sons dealt with the situation.

"It's definitely been a great thing for everybody," she said.

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