Updated, 3 p.m.: Comment from Simon Wilson-Taylor, lead sentence revised; 7:38 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk has been dealing with possible litigation regarding a treehouse.
“I have now dismantled the ‘house’ part of the treehouse. It’s gone. The kids are devastated,” Simon Wilson-Taylor wrote to NancyOnNorwalk on Monday, explaining the results of his defeat in a year-long dispute with the Planning and Zoning Department, and his Rowayton neighbors.
Wilson-Taylor’s fiancé, Katherine Hynes, was threatened with a $150 a day fine over the treehouse at the far end of her Highland Avenue backyard, in close proximity to the Meyerson’s home on Covewood Avenue. The Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday turned down Hynes’s application for a height variance on the treehouse on a 3-2 vote, a follow-up to a February hearing in which the treehouse was unanimously turned down “without prejudice,” meaning that the couple could come back after making modifications to address the issues.
“What is clear… is that the kind of treehouses that people are building all over Connecticut and the rest of the country (thanks to TV shows like Treehouse Master) are not welcome in Norwalk,” Wilson-Taylor wrote.
“Every room in my house, pretty much, I look out the window, I see that treehouse,” neighbor Martha Meyerson said at last week’s hearing, explaining that she didn’t like confrontation, did not want to be in front of the ZBA again, but nothing had changed with the treehouse.
The background of the dispute
Wilson-Taylor reached out to NancyOnNorwalk in late October to complain about a “very unpleasant confrontation with the Norwalk ZBA.”
“We are the poor fools who though it would be fun to build a nice treehouse and play area for our 5 tween/teenage kids, so that they could enjoy some element of privacy in a yard that is overlooked on both sides by houses that are very close to our boundary (6 feet on one side and 12 feet on the other),” he wrote.
Hynes bought 102 Highland Ave. in July 2012; Wilson-Taylor bought the neighboring 23 Covewood Ave. in July 2011. They became engaged and live together in her home.
“Our interaction with the ZBA and the Citation Hearing officer over this issue has been brutal,” Wilson-Taylor wrote. “The house we live in was previously a semi-derelict former violin factory in the middle of residential Rowayton, and it has been a multi-year project to convert it to a house, clearing decades of garbage that the neighborhood had dumped there and improving the old building. We have been very respectful of all P&Z issues throughout, but due to this treehouse issue Zoning have made it almost impossible for us to continue this work as they have blocked new permits on the main house, and even begun to accrue fines at $150 per day…even though the ZBA had given us 6 months to…in their words ‘enjoy the treehouse for the summer and come back and see us in the fall’. We are clearly being singled out for particularly nasty and vindictive treatment…. State officials have told me (verbally) that this a very serious case of over-reach by Norwalk.”
Sources agree that Hynes’ acre of land had been thickly overgrown for decades before she bought it. Problems began when Hynes cleared the land and put up a fence, blocking one of Rowayton’s “paper roads,” sources said, with one explaining that there are nine Rowayton roads that exist on paper only, city-owned pieces of property that children use as walking paths.
This issue flared June 2015, when “Two (of 11) abutting neighbors became very hostile as Katherine cleaned up her land and established her property boundaries (after surveys by Arcamone, and professional soil surveys were completed),” Wilson-Taylor wrote. “Many spurious and unwarranted complaints were made to the police and the town and those neighbors have remained aggressively hostile ever since. This has made normal neighborly discussions with those two neighbors impossible.”
The Department of Public Works came out and surveyed the property, discovering that the trail children had been using had been incorrectly placed, and allowing the neighbors to landscape a new trail, a reliable source said.
Then, a treehouse went up next to the Meyerson’s master bedroom, sources said.
Nearly a year ago, Hynes wrote to Hayducky:
“For several years I have been promising the children that we would build a treehouse. As the children are now all teens or tweens this was the “now or never” year. Inspired by the Treehouse Masters TV show, we selected the ideal tree in our back yard and purchased the correct TABs (Treehouse Attachment Bolts) to minimize damage to the tree itself and drew up outline plans.
“My fiancée & I then began doing a lot of internet research on permit requirements. The Norwalk website offers no specific information. We found that many Connecticut towns and cities do have specific treehouse guidelines, but this provided no helpful guidance as the guidelines vary enormously.”
Wilson-Taylor said the couple spent the fall/winter of 2016-17 researching treehouse construction, and in May 2017 tried to get a building permit for the treehouse, planned to be 100 square feet with a roof, windows and doors built on a platform about 14 feet off the ground, but was told no permit was needed. Zoning said that as long as the setbacks were honored they had no concerns, according to Wilson-Taylor.
He spent six months building the treehouse; a complaint was filed that fall and a citation issued in November 2017, he said.
Wilson-Taylor and the Planning and Zoning Department disagree about the results of the March 1 decision; Wilson-Taylor and Hynes say they understood that the children could use the house through the summer, but P&Z in July issued a citation, Wilson-Taylor said.
Hynes met with Mayor Harry Rilling about the treehouse; Wilson-Taylor then met with a “specialist Planning and Zoning attorney to discuss the case and our options,” he wrote. “Litigation is clearly a consideration, but as this case is fraught with significant misunderstandings and incorrect procedure,” he wrote in a letter which was sent to Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin.
Kleppin did not reply, Wilson-Taylor wrote.
ZBA hearing, round II
Thursday’s hearing began with ZBA member David Heuvelman reading a legal summary of the case, explaining that no Zoning hardship had been explained, that the treehouse greatly exceeds the allowable height and, “This application is no different from the one previously submitted. The applicant did not take any of the Board’s suggestions and simply resubmitted the same application.”
That’s not true, Wilson-Taylor said. “We are respectful people who have taken a careful and systematic approach to rehabilitating this property, which is an ongoing project.”
The height of the treehouse is determined by the limbs in the tree, which was selected as the “one and only one perfect tree,” he said, explaining, “Many towns in Connecticut do have clear guidelines on treehouses, perhaps because they have had to face these issues and as I have come to discover the hard way, this oversight … (is) a serious disservice.”
He was told no permit was needed, Zoning said there was no concern, and the work was clearly visible during the six months he labored, drawing “nothing but praise except for one neighbor,” he said.
The ground where the treehouse is located is 18 feet lower than the actual house, he said, explaining that if he lowered the house to meet the height requirement, on the existing platform, it would be 1 foot high.
To lower it and keep the size of the house, it would be four feet off the ground and “effectively a shed,” he said, adding that if he took the house off the platform but installed the zipline and slide that had been planned, it would meet the Zoning regulations in the “worst possible outcome,” resulting in unlimited views into the Meyerson’s home.
“Attorneys have pointed out that implied, but not stated, in the original citation is the concept that our treehouse was being designated as an accessory structure,” Wilson-Taylor said. “This is the core of the problem. If our treehouse was instead properly designated as a treehouse, none of these citations would have been issued or apply at all. … …. If we had appealed, which would have been proper course of action, we would have been able to discuss… we didn’t know that was the right action so we have been forced down the path of applying for variance for height.”
Wilson-Taylor produced a letter from Norwalk Chief Building Official Bill Ireland saying no building permit was needed for the treehouse and said the construction was in compliance with state building code.
“We are not Zoning experts,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to be Zoning experts to navigate this. We have had experience of working with John Hayducky on other issues, which he immediately dismissed, and on this one we believed that this was the path to go down. Turns out to be false.”
The treehouse was designed to angle away from the Meyersons, with one wall facing their property and a high window above the children’s eye level, he said.
“We could actually build a full-size house on the location of the treehouse, actually closer – obviously, we would have to tear down our existing house first, but there would be no zoning concerns about building a two-story full-sized house with windows overlooking the Meyerson’s property in the yard,” Wilson-Taylor said. “So our treehouse with its limited use should be of no concern to anybody.”
Martha Meyerson scoffed at Wilson-Taylor’s description of extensive online research into treehouse construction, saying she had found “basic guidelines of height” and the “simplest” suggestion: talk to neighbors.
“I would have said I wouldn’t love that,” she said.
“I don’t know why they cut down all those trees if they were planning to build a treehouse,” she said.
Only five trees had been cut down, Wilson-Taylor said, asserting that he had counted trees that morning and there are 63 trees that are more than 10-feet high, 32 that are more than 30 feet, and most are on the property line between his house and Hynes’ house.
“The Meyersons unfortunately are not as good neighbors as they paint themselves, and we have had a number of issues with them over time, including driving 5-ton trucks up my driveway without consent,” he said. “This has not been conducive environment to having this kind of conversation so we stuck to what we are allowed to do under the regulations. We have built a treehouse that is 38 feet from their building. Their building is 6 feet from property line…. it should be more than enough distance given the proximity of their house to the property itself.”
“The bottom line is, it’s an accessory structure, it does not conform. It’s an illegal structure,” said Brad Simmons, a Covewood Road resident.
“The treehouse is a very elaborate accessory structure built way up in a tree on the back lot of back lot,” Susan Simmons said, describing double-hung windows, Tyvek sheeting, shingle siding and electricity provided by extension cords. “It is a very large structure which looks more like a house in a tree than a traditional treehouse. At 23.4 feet, it towers over our yards and homes at the end of Covewood Drive, invading the privacy of the neighborhood and specifically the Meyerson home, and importantly, their master bedroom and bath…. the structure is completely out of place in our closely-knit residential neighborhood.”
The Simmons house is 200 feet from the treehouse, which was purposely built at the bottom of the hill so as not to tower over the neighborhood, Wilson-Taylor said.
Turning down the variance
Nearly an hour later, the ZBA began its deliberations.
“I think the building department, Planning and Zoning, missed the boat on this. Unfortunately, there is no regulation … for treehouses,” ZBA member Lee Levey said. “It’s very specific in (state) building code, there is difference between a treehouse and a play structure. I just wish that this had been pointed out during our first hearing…. I think they were done an injustice on this.”
Taylor Strubinger said he agreed but, “I am so aggravated with this guy that he came in here and he is giving the same damn argument that he took up all of our time the last time he was here. It was explained to him that he had to talk to his neighbors and come to a compromise, he didn’t do a damn thing.”
“He didn’t do any of it,” Levey said. “That’s the other side of the coin, we made very specific recommendations. Nothing.”
“I think he did do his research and as he commented… he got stuck,” Keith Lyon said, arguing that Wilson-Taylor had tried to screen the windows and block any view of the neighbor’s property, and removed the security cameras.
“It seems to me like it’s a house that’s up high and there happens to be a tree next to it. To me, a treehouse is this little thing, maybe 8-10 feet high,” ZBA Chairman Joe Beggan said.
“It’s an entire industry now, building structures like this within trees so the question becomes now where are we equipped to make this determination… based on the codes that we have,” Heuvelman said.
“Unfortunately this is a very litigious neighborhood, that, a lot of animosity between neighbors, we gave them quite a bit of time, in fact, more time than they were actually supposed to have, to negotiate this and all parties failed,” Levey said.
Beggan made a motion to deny the variance completely, saying, “I think by doing that he will finally get the point that he needs to do something about this structure.”
“I don’t think so. I think he’ll take it to Supreme Court,” Lyons said.
“Let him,” Beggan said.
Levey asked if Wilson-Taylor came back with an application after the treehouse was dismantled and all traces were removed.
“Absolutely,” Zoning Inspector Aline Rochefort replied, explaining that P&Z recently issued a permit for a treehouse and “they are called accessory structures and they need to meet all of the requirements, heights and setbacks.”
Beggan’s motion failed 2-3. Levey made a motion to allow the treehouse if certain conditions were met; that also failed 2-3.
That meant the application for a variance was denied, Rochefort said, later confirming for NancyOnNorwalk that the treehouse would have to be removed.
“My only option might be to rebuild it, using the dismantled parts, so that it is not more than 15 feet high,” Wilson-Taylor wrote to NoN on Monday. “That would not really be a treehouse as it would only be 5 feet or less off the ground. I am still discussing my options with P&Z. I have also asked them to provide some guidelines as to what kind of treehouse I could build ABOVE 15 feet high without it being classified as an accessory structure. Aline Rochefort told me today that she and her team are discussing this and hopefully I will get some kind of answer.”
He did not reply to an email asking if this meant he would not be taking it to court.
“I am frankly horrified by this decision,” Sarah Waters, a Rowayton resident, wrote to Rilling and Rochefort on Friday. “I have just been told that Zoning has flexed rules so they can now designate a treehouse an accessory structure, regulations from which it should be exempt as a treehouse for children, per my understanding of state law. So now the city will have destruction of a child’s treehouse on its hands. Norwalk Zoning Board of appeals is party to unneighborly, anti-children efforts in this city. And therefore the city government is implicated. I am beside myself in disbelief.”
“Our attorney advises that any case taken to the Superior Court can only challenge the decision made at the last hearing,” Wilson-Taylor wrote Tuesday. “It cannot challenge the arbitrary decision by an unnamed staff member a year ago to call our treehouse an “accessory structure”…even though we were not notified of that decision, nor given an opportunity to appeal it at the time. The way the law is applied here enables this kind of petty bureaucracy unfortunately.