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Update: Treehouse in the doghouse

March 20th, 2014 · 30 Comments

 
 By reporter Steven Smalley
The treehouse constructed among the cottonwoods on the Magnolia bluff east of the area where six homes were destroyed in a 1996 landslide, has found itself in the crosshairs of the City Department of Planning and Development with several violations issued, according to a DPD City of Seattlespokesperson.
For openers, the office that assigns building permits says this treehouse project did not have one. In addition, other violations were meted out regarding the placement of the structure in an Environmentally Critical Area. The public citation stated the treehouse was a, “Residence constructed within shoreline setback,” that did not meet shoreline regulations.
Recently airing on cable’s Animal Planet television program, Treehouse Masters – a story reported here on Magnolia Voice – the structure got the attention of the city by way of citizen complaint.

Magnolia homes destroyed by landslide in 1996
Photo courtesy City of Seattle

To city inspectors it looked like, “A house in a tree constructed at the base of a steep slope,” according to the spokesperson.
“From DPD’s perspective, it’s a home-structure propped up by trees…built upon the rubble of the slide of 1996 just steps away,” he said. The treehouse was constructed by program host and Fall City treehouse builder, Pete Nelson, according to property owner and Spokane attorney, Ronnie Rae. Rae, and fervent kayaker who conducts business between the Inland Empire and the Emerald City, says he purchased the lot on the bluff last summer. It’s the easternmost parcel of 16 connected lots on the bluff, according to Rae (36), a graduate of Gonzaga University School of Law.
“We hauled out a ton of garbage that had piled up from 18-years of neglect,” he says. “Technically, we wanted to have a boathouse. We are avid SCUBA divers. We stay for only a handful of hours. Eventually we want to get a kayak club interested in this portion of Elliott Bay.”
Rae, along with land use consultant, Paul Carkeek, are aware of the city’s effort to cite him for violations, “Much to our surprise,” Rae says. “Any kind of action the city takes against us is kind of nonsense. We have found a way to stabilize the area. We hope others will follow suit.”
In defense of his project, Rae asserts no building permit is needed, as the regulations specifically exempt treehouses from such requirements. It seems city rules do not specifically define treehouse. Rae says he is ready to defend his property rights against the city’s desire to essentially keep him off his land.
“We are willing to take any measure necessary to preserve my land-use rights,” Rae declares, adding that he has improved the land thus increasing its value for tax purposes.
“If the city didn’t think there was any use for it, they shouldn’t be taking tax money,” he insists.
In the meantime, the Department of Planning and Development’s Director’s Review is in process, ready to receive evidence submitted by Rae’s team showing the city’s violations were cited in error. They have until the end of the month to submit paperwork, according to the DPD. Once the city has received Rae’s appeal, they will take 2-3 weeks to make a determination whether the department will issue a permit to remove the structure or a permit to legalize it.
For Carkeek’s part, he is determined to show how Rae has improved the property, and how they plan an additional restoration to shore up land around the structure.
Furthermore, he says, the treehouse couldn’t possibly be a residence, as it is inconvenient to access, and has no utilities.
Carkeek says these city citations are DPD’s reaction to something out of the ordinary that causes them fear and anxiety. He declares Rae will, “Stay the course,” in his quest to keep the treehouse. “We will work with the city and make it right,” he insists.
In a new wrinkle, Magnolia Voice was alerted to some new sloughing of trees and soil just west of the treehouse. The aluminum ladder used to access the stairs leading to the structure is now covered with debris. A return visit to the site yielded additional photos showing the damage. It is unknown who cut the fallen trees leaving stumps.

Tags: Uncategorized

  • Bo

    This doesn’t seem wise to build on smaller cottonwoods as this particular species is known to grow rapidly without a deep root structure. Pretty dumb build here, he obviously didn’t apply for a permit because it would have been denied. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right greenhouse master?

    • Ty

      Cottonwood trees work perfectly well for this. Plus, it is built in a stand of several trees, so it’s extremely sound. It’s even likely to be much stronger than a wood frame setting on a cement slab. He didn’t ask for a building permit because they don’t issue them for treehouses. Simple!

      • rogercaine

        Sorry, but that is absolute nonsense. Anything built on a beach can be taken out by a strong storm…or a slide. A wood frame on a cement slab is stronger, because if it has been built on an area which is habitable it is built in an area that supports such structures not being demolished. I have lived on beachfront and seen entire houses washed away overnight. Magnolia houses from 1931 remain because they are built in areas that are not susceptible to storms and slides. The whole treehouse thing is just a whim…what really matters is that no one use it seriously, and that is the danger. Because in “real life” it is without a doubt a death trap.

  • Guest

    It is not a treehouse

    • Valentijn

      Yeah, it doesn’t look attached to trees at all. It’s just built in a way to accommodate their presence.

    • Ty

      It’s totally built on, and supported by trees, so it is a tree house. If you can’t tell from the photo, watch the episode!

  • Marty

    For 40 years I have walked the beach along Perkins lane where I live. In nearly 20 years no one has lifted a finger to clean the beach nor take efforts in stabilizing the area. I am an engineer and I don’t see a single issue of concern with the construction of the treehouse. In fact the beach has never looked better. I have spoken with Mr. Raye on a few occasions and he is exactly what this neighborhood needs, vision and fortitude. The property he now owns was a garbage dump and now it is a marvel. The DPD should commend Mr. Raye and support his efforts not cloud the project with red tape and bureaucracy.

    • Benjamin Lukoff

      Just curious — is this with explicit approval of your neighbors, or is it tacit?

    • Benjamin Lukoff

      Just curious — is this with explicit approval of your neighbors, or is it tacit?

  • Roni Wright Carter

    I believe its beautiful. I think it is a much better use of that land then sitting there. I really wish people would stop wasting tax money on such ridiculous things.

  • Stacie T.

    In my opinion, a treehouse for what happened in that area is a great idea! I wouldn’t of thought of that. Treehouse’s are so much fun, and if you can make them work, why not! It’s looks beautiful. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. My daughter and I watched the show on animal planet, she is 10. She learned so much from the show and how the treehouse was built. She spent the most time out of her class doing a show and tell project with just a seashell that she got from the beach there. It’s not a residence. There’s no road, no mail box but the city can sure tax it. According to this, the city just wants to take the stucture down in a matter of weeks. When you have someone like Ronnie Rae that has cleaned up that place and has insisted he will do what needs to be done to make it right. Ronnie Rae gave a full interview on his views on his treehouse and what he will do to the place. Most people would decline to even comment.

  • Karen Loos

    Having known Mr. Rae since his youth, I can’t conceive of him or either of these owners doing anything shortsighted, careless, or that would put themselves, or others, or others’ property at risk. Same thing for the tree-house builder, who’s reputation and living depend upon his knowledge of trees and judged that the cottonwood tree roots in this particular niche would be stabilizing to the landscape and secure. Additionally, the treehouse is obviously just a recreational treehouse to camp out in on occasion, though a creative and comfortable one, and cannot possibly be considered a home without utilities or consistent access. The owners have gone to a huge amount of trouble to clean up the beach area and make it presentable, with the artistic treat of adding a charmingly novel visual surprise to all who pass by on the water.

  • Weston Stark

    I find it ridiculous the city is citing violations on Mr. Rae for his treehouse property. For nearly 20 years that land was nothing but a hideous landslide filled with rusty metal, broken pipes, concrete slabs, and other miscellaneous debris. I commend Mr. Rae for thinking outside of the box and finding a unique and beautiful way to utilize the property. He was able to bring something different and unique to the shores of Magnolia! Let it be!

  • Ryan

    I walk down that beach all the time, and that particular lot, with the treehouse, which used to be as much an un-passable eye sore as the rest of that area due to lack of clean-up, is now a pleasure to walk through. The city should be happy someone is maintaining the beach that they are working to provide so much access to. I have yet to meet the owners of the treehouse, but i think it was well done and is a delight to see in an area that has been neglected for so many years.

    • Steve

      What? The beach there is private land. In Washington the beach isn’t public. You’re technically trespassing every time you walk on it, no matter how low the tide is. Landowners there could insist that you stay out. Get injured checking out the tree fort and sue him? Maybe.

      • Ryan

        What is the McGraw street access designed to do then?

        • Benjamin Lukoff

          It’s designed to allow access to the beach for the width of the McGraw right-of-way. Unfortunately, that’s it. Steve is correct — while not all beaches in Washington are privately owned, many are. If there were a very low tide, you might be able to legally walk the beach from the marina to the locks… maybe. As it is, you are trespassing. Of course, no one marks the property lines out there, and it would be difficult to prove it either way.

        • Benjamin Lukoff

          It’s designed to allow access to the beach for the width of the McGraw right-of-way. Unfortunately, that’s it. Steve is correct — while not all beaches in Washington are privately owned, many are. If there were a very low tide, you might be able to legally walk the beach from the marina to the locks… maybe. As it is, you are trespassing. Of course, no one marks the property lines out there, and it would be difficult to prove it either way.

    • Steve

      Also, the city owns a parcel on Perkins lane to the west of the landslide area, and doesn’t provide beach access there. You can walk this beach, but it’s hardly designed for “much access.”

      • Benjamin Lukoff

        Do they not provide access because they can’t (are cut off by private property) or don’t want to?

      • Benjamin Lukoff

        Do they not provide access because they can’t (are cut off by private property) or don’t want to?

  • Ty

    What an interesting article! I think this debate will help move us towards a more open, free society! Although, the sooner our governments and neighbors learn to “see the forest for the trees,” the sooner we can all get back to more important work…

  • Lindsey

    I completely agree with Ronnie rae! A tree guise does not fall in the some category as a home in regards to permits, as well as the fact they went about building everything in a safe and secure manner so why would this be an issue? What citizens would complain about this in the first place? If this is his property why would it effect anyone else? I think the tree house is a beautiful addition to an area of land that was unusable.. I completely support these two in their fight to keep their land rights! Best of luck to both of you!

  • say what

    I wonder if people would feel the same way if another landslide occured in this location?

    • SeattleStudent

      It is definitely possible that a landslide could affect that area, but if it does, I suspect that a treehouse will be the last thing on anyone’s minds. I think you are right though that the recent terrible landslide should make us think carefully about existing and future structures in our neighborhood.

    • Steve

      *If?!?* Landslides happen down there regularly. Several in the past year. An active one right next to this structure. One that took out the back deck of a beach house down there within the past year. The area is basically uninhabitable.

  • Magnolian neighbor

    I see the treehouse owner got his friends to show up and post super-positive comments in his support. I’d expect nothing less from a lawyer. But that doesn’t make what he has built legal. Or landslide-proof. There is a reason that 200 ft of west-facing waterfront on Perkins Lane sold for $100K last summer, and without several hundred thousand dollars of mitigation it’s only a matter of time before this thing ends up in the drink one winter night. Fortunately there is unlikely to be anyone inside at that time.

    • williamthomas

      Given the devastation in Oso, I agree. I considered buying on Perkins, but having seen a similar slide up in Anacortes when I was buying up there, I steered clear. Up north, some banks wouldn’t even finance homes in a slide prone area. The builder of this structure might think it is fun, and I wouldn’t disagree that he should be allowed the freedom to make a treehouse on his property…but it isn’t about the treehouse. It is about not building structures in landslide prone areas. In Anacortes, people started building little shacks, then little docks, then they spent time on weekends overnight in those structures…and before you know it, the city is liable for a lawsuit if they are killed by a landslide. The city is prohibiting building there so that it doesn’t become a “slippery slope”, pardon the terrible pun, for others to follow and start building structures in an area prone to disasters.

  • Perkins Neighbor

    If you look to the city zoning charts for that particular area, it is still designated for residential builds. So I am confused… How would this project be considered illegal or in any way against what the intended use of the land is? I understand that tackling a unstable shoreline is not an easy task– (one not even the city is taking up, and it seems the owner is up to trying to do.) But if the land is private and taxed as a home lot, why could you not build a structure with literally no environmental impact on it?

    • former inspector

      Magnolia is seething in lawyers who can think of reasons better than I can to sue, and the city doesn’t want a lawsuit. That is the reason, for example that electrical work has to pass inspection, so you won’t be killed if some fly by night fix it guy does shoddy work which causes you to be fried. Its the reason you cannot build a house on your lot yourself without passing inspection…because it could come down on the heads of the poor people who buy it from you. If that tree house stays and the owners move on, some kids of the next people who live there will stay in it all night, the night the next slide comes. Without zoning laws and inspections the houses you live in now could have been put together with cardboard and scotch tape and you’d never know if they were safe to occupy or not. Zoning in that area is designated for residential builds that pass inspection. This one would not.