How to Save a Tree House From a Zoning Board

Veterans and their sons take on local bureaucracy.


The Swiss Family Robinson, shipwrecked builders of what may be history's most famous tree house, were lucky their arbor of choice was on an uninhabited island. Had pirates chased the Robinsons ashore in Northern Virginia, a massive structure like the one immortalized in the 1960 Technicolor classic and later transformed into a Disney theme park attraction surely would have attracted unwanted attention from the local zoning board. 

When Spc. Mark Grapin returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with the Army National Guard in 2011, he promised his sons—Sean, 9, and Eric, 11—that he would build them a tree house before he shipped out again. Grapin told reason.tv he drew and redrew plans for the tree house "a hundred, if not a thousand, times." 

Grapin, who lives in Fairfax County, outside Washington, D.C., called the county and asked about any building codes that might apply. "The guy kind of laughed me off the phone," he says. 

So Grapin got to work, spending dozens of hours and $1,400 on materials. The result: some pretty swank kiddie digs. No running water or thatched roof like the Swiss Family's island getaway, but 52 square feet covered with a nice coat of red paint and trimmed with orange shutters. The hideaway, built around the only large tree on Grapin's property, was supposed to be a "slice of Americana and of childhood dreams," he says. 

Little did Grapin know that a second set of bureaucrats, the Fairfax County zoning board, should have been consulted before construction began. Because his one-story home is situated on a corner lot, Grapin's back yard is technically classified as a front yard. In Fairfax County, that means he needed a variance from local zoning rules to build the tree house.

An anonymous complaint from a neighbor triggered a county investigation into the unapproved structure, and in September the Board of Zoning Appeals voted 4-3 to deny Grapin the variance. The tree house was then slated for the wrecking ball. With time running out before the veteran would be sent back into the field, he went to the local media for help, triggering outrage nationwide. 

Portland, Oregon, Army Sgt. Cameron Dunbar-Yamaguchi launched a petition at Change.org, a site that allows users to create and circulate online pleas, and the initiative quickly picked up 1,600 signatures, 600 of them from Fairfax County. Hundreds of people emailed the zoning board to support the scofflaw builder. 

The eight-month administrative battle ended up costing the Grapins more than the tree house itself—at least $2,000, Grapin says, not including pro bono legal assistance the family received to help prepare a 50-page application for the zoning variance. 

Permits, it turns out, don't come cheap. "I paid $885 for a special permit to build the tree house," Grapin told Fox News in October. "There were additional fees of $975 to have the plats for the property redrawn to reflect the tree house, and then I had to pay mail fees to notify the neighbors of hearings so they could voice any concerns they might have about the tree house."

When members of the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals reconvened in November, they voted unanimously to grant the tree house a five-year stay of execution—plenty of time for Grapin's sons to enjoy it. The decision came just before Grapin headed back to Iraq. He can now take comfort that his sons have a fun and safe place to play.

Grapin isn't the only service member to recently run afoul of Fairfax County's zoning code. Phillip Blevins, an Air Force officer and father of two, was hit with a similar tree house citation while deployed in Afghanistan in 2010. As in Grapin's case, an anonymous complaint set the review process in motion—likely a neighbor who was annoyed by the obstructed view or noisy kids. 

The Blevins family can no longer appeal to the newly chastened zoning board, however; their case moved to the Fairfax Circuit Court after administrative remedies failed. The family received a summons on December 30, 2011, demanding that the tree house—which is more than seven feet off the ground and deemed too close to the edge of their property —be moved or torn down within 21 days. The structure took two years to build, and each of its four corners is anchored to a live tree.

It's enough to make a handy dad and his disappointed sons wish for a desert island. 

Joshua Swain is a producer at reason.tv. Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of reason. For video about this story, go to reason.tv.