Out of other problems, L.A. city government goes after...tree houses

Strange, is it not? The city can’t seem to use the ridiculous amount of tax money they scoop up in Los Angeles to, say, fix potholes and provide basic services competently. But they can come after a 10-year-old tree house. Oh, boy, can they. Take it away, Steve Lopez, and thank you for giving this some ink in the L.A. Times:

On May 22, a diligent public servant at Los Angeles City Hall wrote a letter to a Venice homeowner about the treehouse that’s been in her yard for 10 years. And you just know, don’t you, that a story with this beginning will not have a happy ending?…

The owner of the well-maintained treehouse is Eileen Erickson. She lives on a Venice walk street not all that far from a neighborhood I wrote about recently in which residents spent years begging the city to repave their horribly potholed streets, only to be told that they would have to pay to fix their own curbs first. So you can understand Erickson’s surprise and frustration when she opened the letter from the city’s Department of Building and Safety and read through two pages of bureaucratic gibberish identifying no fewer than 17 code violations. She was ordered to “demolish” the treehouse or face thousands of dollars in fines and possible imprisonment.

“Everyone thinks it’s ludicrous, given the many problems in the city,” Erickson wrote to her council office at one point during her ongoing nightmare. She noted in that correspondence that she gathered hundreds of signatures from neighbors hoping to save the treehouse, which has been treasured by many children.

Let’s talk about the fines, shall we? That’s what this is about—squeezing a little more revenue out of law-abiding citizens instead of doing work for the community worthy of the exorbitant amount of money they’re already extracting. So, how much might they bleed Mrs. Erickson for?

“An inspection has revealed that the property … is in violation of Los Angeles Municipal Code sections listed below,” it said, adding that Eileen would be charged $356.16 for the inspection and could be in for thousands of additional dollars in permit fees and penalties, if not imprisonment…

She has since spent countless mind-numbing hours trying to get hold of city officials, visiting city offices, trying to decipher municipal codes and having more than a few emails and phone calls ignored…

Erickson said she is reluctantly willing to pay a $3,500 fee for a variance, but there would be no guarantee that her problems would end with that. Based on her research, she suspects another reason the city might swing a wrecking ball is that the treehouse — and the trees, which were there long before she and Sid arrived on the scene — are too close to a public right of way that takes pedestrians along the walk street.

Well, that would put her $4,000 in without any assurances that she’d be able to keep the tree house and no idea when the problem might actually be resolved either way.

The tree house can’t possibly be described as any sort of eyesore. It’s a beautifully constructed bamboo structure that looks like Tarzan meets mid-century modern chic. And, as most tree houses do, it has sentimental value to the family and the neighborhood. The man who built it was a veteran who bonded with Eileen’s late husband while working at the house, and Eileen has hosted neighborhood book clubs and community kids in the tree house over the years.

Here in the D.C. area, an Iraq vet fought a similar fight over the beautiful treehouse he built for his sons to fulfill a promise he made while away on his combat tour. Thankfully, he won that battle but it took a national media campaign and the father in question, Mark Grapin, happened to be perfectly suited to a national media blitz— an honorable public servant, a well-spoken man with a near-flawless natural sense of how to talk to the press.

“So my whole deployment, I must have made hundreds of sketches,” he said. “What can I do to fulfill my promise to build a tree house? We’ve got two great trees we can put a tree house in.”

Grapin learned early in the project he didn’t need a building permit for a tree house and he got to work. Then he got the notice. Someone anonymously brought the tree house to the zoning board’s attention.

Call me crazy, but you shouldn’t need a compelling personal narrative and what amounts to the skills commensurate with a ton of media training to build a tree house. But this happens all the time, thanks to a combination of overbearing regulation, overzealous regulators, and neighborhood narcs happy to turn in their fellow property owners.

Sadly, this is the kind of thing that flourishes when your government is big, unaccountable, thirsty for all yo money, and protected from punishment by a nearly 100 percent liberal electorate. I’m hoping for the best for Erickson, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic.