City wants to regulate tree house, says it’s too tall

Neighbors have complained about this tree house on Arroyo Road in Los Altos. Photo from city of Los Altos records.

Daily Post Staff Writer

A Los Altos family has run into trouble because the city says their kids’ tree house counts as an accessory unit, which makes it subject to city height regulations.

Katie and Rich Heley, of 714 Arroyo Road, are appealing the city’s decision to reclassify what they say is a playhouse for their sons.

The two-story wooden tree house is nestled within two redwoods in the couple’s backyard. It has a 105-square-foot deck and 210 square feet of enclosed space. It is also 24 feet tall including the wooden legs that support it.

They began building it in 2018. The city forced the couple to stop work on the tree house, which was almost done, later that year. But dispute lingers on.

The city’s community development director, Jon Biggs, said in a memo to city council that the structure is an “accessory unit,” not a playhouse, because of its size. If it is classified as an accessory unit, it is too large under city standards because the height limit for accessory units is 12 feet.

The Heleys say that when they reached out to the city about the project before starting construction they were told that there are no codes regulating tree houses.

“As our case is not unique — we believe that we are one of hundreds of existing and future tree houses in this city — it is imperative that vagueness regarding tree house construction be eliminated,” said Katie Heley in a letter to the city council.

The couple said they have already lost two years because of complaints from angry neighbors and red tape from the city.

The confusion over the tree house has become an inter-city dispute.

Eric Schmidt, a Mountain View resident on Marilyn Drive near the Heley property, sent a letter to his city council asking them to take action against the treehouse. Schmidt said play structures should be child scale, not huge. He said the treehouse is taller than his home.

Keith and Kirsten Mello, Los Altos residents and neighbors of the Heleys on Arroyo Road, said the Heleys sought feed back on the tree house throughout its construction. They said it is a wonderful place for the Heley boys to unplug and spend time with their friends.

City council will hear the Heleys’ appeal on Tuesday (Aug. 25).

Accessory dwelling units, also known as granny units, are controversial in Los Altos. The state has passed laws to make them easier to add because of the housing shortage, but some residents have said granny units encourage more traffic in neighborhoods and make residential lots too dense.


  1. “The Heleys say that when they reached out to the city about the project before starting construction they were told that there are no codes regulating tree houses.”

    Any structure on a residential parcel is either a residential structure or an accessory structure. There are specific code sections regulating them in the Municipal Code. There are code sections regulating them under State law as well. A tree house is either a residential or an accessory structure, and therefore has code regulating it.

    If a City official said there was no code regulating tree houses they were derelict in their duties and responsibilities and should be fired. Los Altos city officials have engaged in false representations, engaged in unequal application and enforcement of the Municipal Code leading to lawsuits in Federal Courts where the City and its agents are now defendants.

    A homeowner also has responsibility in representing their structure and its uses accurately to the City. If they were dishonest or inaccurate in their representations they are and can be held accountable too. A quick review of what information the Heleys presented to the City re their “tree house” and what they knew about accessory structures before or during the construction would confirm how they were complicit in this mess.

  2. “The Heleys say…they were told that there are no codes regulating tree houses”

    If there were no codes regulating tree houses it meant anyone could build a tree house, however big and however close to the property lines and disregard setbacks, privacy, fire hazards, etc. That makes a mockery of the Code, doesn’t it? Ergo, there were codes regulating tree houses, either the City official who said there were none was wrong or the Heleys misunderstood.

    If the Heleys had done a little homework they would have learned the Los Altos Municipal Code required:
    a) a building permit for structures over 120 sq ft. Their tree house BEFORE expansion was pver 120 sq ft. Lacking a building permit the structure is illegal.
    b) only permitted (and thus legal) structures can be expanded. Their adding a deck to expand their illegal structure is also unlawful.

    Simply put: an illegal structure must be DEMOLISHED, not expanded.

    This is not the first instance where City officials under current management have engaged in bad behavior that favored some homeowners at cost to others. The Heleys’ neighbors who complained are lucky! In other instances the City’s agents and attorneys worked in concert with the property owner benefiting from the illegal structure to violate the rights of the complainants. See pending lawsuits in Federal Ct vs Los Altos.

  3. >“Facts” sounds like the neighbor from hell.

    Consider the facts detailed in this report by the Daily Post, the prior history of malfeasance by City of Los Altos agents and agencies also reported in the Daily Post, the two lawsuits in Federal Court and allegations of conspiracy by City agents and agencies–public servants, no less!–and private parties (and their respective attorneys) to contravene the laws and Codes to benefit those private parties and injure others.
    And all Anonymous could contribute is speculate where I am from???

  4. The City Council will probably establish a Department of Tree House Regulation to check up on what the kids are making. While we’re at it, the city should regulate forts boys make when they play cowboys and Indians. Girls need some regulation too, so let’s get City inspectors out there to check on doll houses. You can never be too young to feel the heavy hand of government regulation.

  5. Tree house should stay unless it poses a nuisance or trespasses on neighboring lands, which it doesn’t. But I’m not a Karen who likes to control people and inflict pain and suffering on others just because my own life sucks, so what do I know.

  6. When the city indicated that there were no regulations governing tree houses, they probably assumed the people were considering a typical “tree house” – a small platform in a tree, like we all used to make as kids. They hadn’t considered the tendency of many people to overdo everything, and create the grandest edifice imaginable, like many of the “McMansions” which infest the area.

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