When 8-year-old Logan Olson told his family he wanted a treehouse for his birthday, his grandfather was determined to make it not just any treehouse, but a grand one – a treehouse the whole neighborhood could admire.
The tan, barnlike structure sprawls 80 square feet atop a graceful old linden tree on the front lawn of the family’s single-story tract home in Billings. It has a deck on three sides, with a door that looks like a barn entry, a tire swing suspended from the floor and a pulley to hoist up lunch.
The whole family pitched in on its construction, and when they were done, Logan was so proud of it he sold tours of the structure at the family’s garage sale over the summer for 25 cents each.
Not long after, in late September, the Olson family got a letter from the city: The treehouse, the city said, would have to go – it was too close to the property line.
And that was how something that started as a grandfather teaching a boy how to build a house turned into a mother teaching a boy how to fight city hall.
Kacey Olson, who teaches second grade at a Billings elementary school, said her boys were crestfallen. They had held sleepovers in the treehouse all summer long, stood sentry over the neighborhood, pulled sandwiches up for sultry summer lunches. “During all that time, being in our front yard, all of the neighborhood had seen it and appreciated it. We got real positive feedback from everybody,” she said in an interview.
The problem, the family learned, wasn’t that they didn’t have a building permit – permits aren’t required for structures so small. The issue was a city regulation requiring auxiliary buildings to be at least 20 feet from the property line. The closest treehouse post was less than 6 feet back.
Moving the structure wasn’t an option. There was no similar tree in the backyard. And so entwined in the linden was the treehouse, Kacey Olson said, “about the only way we could move it is cut the tree and attach it to a crane and take it over the roof of our house to the backyard.”
The family researched the zoning laws and found that a variance in the regulations could be granted if deemed appropriate, if other variances had been allowed in the neighborhood, and if the public supported it.
Then Olson’s older son, Dillon, 12, had a thought: What about the petition drive his mother had recently undertaken to get streetlights installed in their neighborhood? That had worked – might the neighbors be similarly induced to support so exceptional a treehouse?
The boys carried a petition door to door, asking neighbors if they minded a treehouse so close to the sidewalk, and won support from just about everybody on the street. Additional public support was garnered when the Billings Gazette ran a story on the family recently.
On Wednesday, the city will decide whether to grant the variance.
City zoning administrator Nicole Cromwell told the Los Angeles Times that her staff had recommended that the variance be granted.
“Our recommendation at this time is to conditionally approve it,” she said, noting that several variances had been granted in the neighborhood. She said it might be appropriate to impose conditions, such as a requirement that if the treehouse were ever significantly damaged, it would have to be rebuilt somewhere else.
The city also might require that the treehouse be secured so that no one else can access it, especially when the Olsons are not at home – not a problem because the family already locks it when they’re not using it.
The boys’ petition drive also helped, she said.
“We also take into consideration any comment we receive from surrounding property owners, and with the support of the surrounding neighbors, I think it will be OK probably for the length of time that it will be there,” she said.
Olson said the treehouse had been an education for her boys, in any case.
“We’ve definitely learned a lot,” she said. “From property rights, that just because you own the property doesn’t mean you can do anything you want to on it, to what an apology means. Because, of course, we were not doing it out of malice to the neighbors or anything.”