Council tells family to reduce size of tree house or city will tear it down

Rich Heley played a video at the council meeting of his 8-year-old son Hudson giving a tour of the tree house.

BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer

Los Altos City Council decided last night that a tree house in the yard at 714 Arroyo Road needs to be reduced in size or the city will tear it down.

Homeowners Katie and Rich Heley will have four months to bring the tree house into compliance.

The Heleys came before the council to appeal a decision by Community Development Director Jon Biggs to declare the 24-foot-tall tree house as an “accessory structure,” and therefore a structure that falls under city regulations.

Rich Heley said they asked the city twice about regulations for tree houses and was told by Planning Services Manager David Kornfield that there are no regulations and no permit is needed. Heley said he asked about height limits and was told there are none for Los Altos tree houses.

In 2018, the Heleys started building the two-story wooden tree house that is nestled between 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.

The city forced the couple to stop work on the tree house, which was almost done, later that year.

Biggs said he decided the structure is an “accessory structure,” not a playhouse, because of its size. If it is classified as an accessory structure, it is too large under city standards because the height limit for accessory structures is 12 feet.

A group of neighbors called into the council’s virtual meeting to complain about the tree house. The complaints were spearheaded by Eric Schmidt, a Mountain View resident on Marilyn Drive near the Heley property. Schmidt said he is worried the tree house could be used as a teenage hangout, a tiny house or even an Airbnb in the future.

“This is not a tree house. It is an accessory structure built around a tree,” said Los Altos resident and former Planning Commissioner Jon Baer. “A treehouse is not a right. This one is an eyesore.”

A neighbor, Alice Kwei, said she doesn’t like the precedent the two-story tree house sets.

Rich Heley said his kids have waited three years for their tree house and need a safe place to play now amid the pandemic, when other activities for children have been eliminated. He even shared a video of his 8-year-old son giving a tour of the tree house and talking about how excited he is to use it.

But the video backfired for Heley.

Mayor Jan Pepper said she was nervous watching the boy climb the ladder into the tree house because she thinks he could fall and get hurt.

City Attorney Jolie Houston said that city laws are enforceable even if city employees gave the Heleys bad advice.

Council ultimately sided with Biggs, but gave the Heleys four months to try and reduce the size of the tree house.

Now that it has been declared an accessory unit, it will need to be cut down from 24 feet at its peak to 12 feet.

Councilwoman Neysa Fligor agreed the tree house is an accessory structure but ultimately voted against the rest of the council. She said she is concerned that city laws are unclear and asked that City Manager Chris Jordan put treehouse regulations on a future council agenda.

40 Comments

  1. I don’t see what the big deal is? They want to have a tree house, let them keep it. The tree house is on private property, the owners checked twice with the city officials and were given the go-ahead without requirement of a permit, so they relied on the city official’s statements, even if mistaken, and to demolish it now would be cruel.

    And since when do neighbors get to control other peoples’ property rights when there is no claim of trespass or nuisance by these neighbors? What kind of a sick person (Karen) complains to the city and demands that a child’s tree house be destroyed? I could never do that, then again I’m not a tyrant who tries to control other people, because that then gives them the right to control me and my property. Live and let live is a better motto.

    • At the time the owners inquired the city officials, they did not present any information like the size, height, and distance to the neighbors. A structure of this enormous size supported by many posts with concrete bases in the ground is not a “tree house” by normal definition (according to the dictionary, a tree house is “a small structure built or placed up in the branches of a tree.”) The owners misrepresented this structure as a normal “tree house.” Even with unregulated structures, the owners should exercise their common sense, judgment, and mindfulness of the neighbors’ privacy and safety. Did they notify or check with all the neighbors? No. Anyone building a 3-story structure this close to your neighbors should at least have the courtesy to talk to ALL neighbors first. Bluntly, anyone with common sense should know a structure this huge would require a permit with compliance and safety inspections.

      Don’t we all have property rights — rights to privacy, safety, and peace&quiet enjoyment? If your rights were violated, would you not make a complaint? If you let this gigantic structure remain unregulated, anybody could just build a structure of any size however close to the neighbors, around a tree or by a tree or somehow linked to a tree, simply call it a “tree house” and escape regulations; it would be a very bad precedent.

      This has nothing to do with being cruel or controlling other people’s rights, The City has duties to protect all residents’ rights.

      • You need to be more specific about the rights violations before tearing down other people’s property.

        Privacy. So if I stand out in my balcony or climb a tree in my backyard and look over on your hard, I’m violating your legally protected privacy rights? Ever heard of curtains and blinds?

        Safety. Is there evidence that tree house might collapse and land on your property and harm you? Trees without a tree house can do the same.

        Peace & Quiet enjoyment. That would fall under nuisance. If kids are out making loud noises after hours you can ask them or the parents to keep noise down. It has nothing to do with a tree house.

        Once again, there are no valid claims of privacy, safety, or noise violations, so stop with the straw man arguments. Neighbors are simply offended for whatever reason but that’s not a valid complaint in a free society. You need to come up with more specific facts.

        Remember turnabout is fair play. if you really believe this, then provide me your address and let me inspect and complain about anything that I find offensive about your home and anything else on your property and demand that you take it down, because that’s what your position calls for.

        • I suggest that you read the details about this case on the Los Altos City website to get the specifics so you can understand why neighbors’ rights are violated and why the neighbors are offended.

          Do you like to keep curtains and blinds closed all day and not see the sunshine? Do you like to be waken up by noises early every morning when you still want to sleep in? Do you like noises this close to you while you are working from home and now you have to keep the windows closed in a hot summer day? We all face and can stand these disturbances occasionally, but if you have a permanent structure that violates all rules (height, size, and setback) and invites these problems to your every day, it is an invasion of your rights to privacy, safety, and peace&quiet enjoyment.

  2. That’s a “tree house”? It’s bigger than some of the places I’ve lived in. If you are determined to have the biggest and best “tree house” imaginable, you should probably expect some attention from the authorities.

    • Well said, comrade. We can’t allow anyone to have the best of anything. Everybody has to be the same or we call authorities on you and show us your papers.

  3. This is what happens when you live in a Marxist state. The neighbors just need to put you down because they do not have one. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor”

    Let people have some privacy.

      • LOL, how is building a tree house in your own yard an invasion of someone else’s privacy? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor”

        • If a treehouse is so tall and so close to your property it overlooks your entire backyard and into your bedroom & bathroom, that is an invasion of privacy. How would you like to have a gigantic 25-foot structure 4 feet from you where your neighbors can see you & hear you every day, and you can’t even open your curtains?

          • So if I am first in my street to build a one-story house, I then have veto rights to prevent any two story houses from going up around me, is that right? A first mover advantage. Because the two story home would look over my land/yard and into my bedroom and bath and invade my privacy? That has to be your position.

            • Do you understand what zoning is? Do you know why the City has residential design and build guide lines? If an area is zoned for 1-story and 2-story residential houses, then obviously it’s not a first neighbor advantage; anyone is entitled to build a 2-story house at any time. However, If a new two-story house has windows that look over your backyard and into your bedroom and bath, they should install translucent windows and/or tree screening between the properties. The point is to ensure & maintain privacy, safety, peace&quiet enjoyment, neighbor appearance&aesthetics, etc. for all.

              • Yes, I know what zoning is and believe at least 90-95% of zoning rules are anti-competitive and meant to protect insiders at expense of outsiders and developers. But you suffer from “fatal conceit” that central planners know what’s best for others than the homewoners themselves with individual preferences, more information, and with skin in the game. You don’t understand public choice theory either and assume government is some disinterested spectator working equally for all rather than for factions who gain favorably.

                I have a rule of thumb. If government rules are in conflict with what private bodies adopt, then the government rule should be scrapped. Look at Condo HOA rules, planned unit developments, etc., and also imagine if both lands (tree house and neighboring land) were owned by a single owner. Would single owner demand tree house be destroyed in that situation? I don’t think so. Or as another example, imagine first land (pig farm) is emitting noxious odors onto second land, how would single owner respond? By allowing it, requiring second land to mitigate harms by installing filters and fans, or by restricting the first (pig farm) land use? The last option of course because it maximizes overall value of both lands.

                You missed this in your education. Think of single-owner analogies and private analogies to every government action.

          • If a tree house is considered a break in your right to privacy, I suggest moving to Alaska. If you think a tree house is against your rights let’s see what this child thinks about you. Unless he sees you naked I don’t think he cares about you. How often his parents climb to the tree house? I suggest you close your curtains so you don’t have to see them.

  4. Correct me if I’ll wrong, but the city had no rules about tree houses. Then this family builds one. The neighbors object. Then the city applies rules that didn’t apply before. And now the tree house is illegal. The Heleys ought to be talking to a lawyer who would sue the daylights out of the city for retroactive lawmaking and illegal seizure of private property.

    • My understanding is Los Altos has always had rules defined in the Accessory Structures code, Basically, an enclosed structure with 3 or more walls and a solid roof exceeding 6 feet in height (which this tree house is) requires a permit. There are also size and setback rules in the code. It’s not realistic to expect the City to spell out every single thing possible and imaginable that you can or cannot build in your yard. So even if “tree house” was not specifically listed as an example of an accessory structure, the accessory structure rules should still be over encompassing and apply In this case.

      • No one is claiming size and setback code violations, so please stop again with the straw man.

        “It’s not realistic to expect the City to spell out every single thing possible and imaginable that you can or cannot build in your yard.” So keep the homeowners guessing and if city has change of heart or, more likely, if neighbors complain, then we have right to tear down your property at any time.
        But I actually agree with your statement, which is why the rules should be clear, simple, and easy to comply with.

        • The structure also violates size and setback rules. My point was: The height alone (exceeding 6 feet) already would require a permit, adding the excessive size and encroachment into the yard setback, this whole structure is not complaint. The City did not keep the owners guessing because the Accessory Structures code has been clear and simple all along about what requires a permit, for example, over 6’ high or over 120 sq, ft.; these requirements did not change in the last 3 years during this case.

          • Alice, you stated that the definition of an accessory structure includes a height aspect and a number of walls aspect. So “height alone” cannot force anything through a permit process. You need both. Now, while the treehouse obviously did in fact satisfy both conditions, and therefore this might sound like a nitpick, you are being very inconsistent with your arguments, and that in turn makes it sound like you just hate treehouses or children or fun or some combination thereof. Your other arguments about privacy are basically nonsensical; if a kid can climb a treehouse, then they can climb the tree, and have all of the same lines of sight. Are we now to chop down all of our trees in the name of privacy? That’s absurd, obviously, but it seems to be consistent with your argument.

            • Of course height alone can force a permit, This tree house not only violates the height rule, but all other rules as well — size, setback, and daylight plane. Of course children could climb a tree at any time and see the neighbors’ properties if they want to (though I’d be really concerned about the safety), this is entirely different from having a permanent structure that provides a fast and easy way for anybody (even adults) to be up and high and see the neighbors’ properties. In addition, how often do you see a group of kids stay up on a tree for hours? Likely not often in the urban cities, A permanent structure this large would allow a party up there for an extended period of time. So comparing climbing a tree to a permanent tall large tree house is comparing apples to oranges. Again, nothing against tree houses or children having fun, but everything against violation of city ordinances and lack of respect for neighbors’ rights to privacy, safety, and pace&quite enjoyment.

  5. The lesson these kids are learning is that your private property isn’t really yours…neighbors can dictate how you use your property… this is America now

      • Let’s go ahead and not mention the kids. This is about unclear codes, ill informed employees and a bunch of people with a lot of time and money on their hands. But commenting on the children and the lessons they’re learning serve no purpose.

  6. Alice, neighbors don’t have the right to tell a property owner what to do. What you’re pushing is communism, where there is no private property and everything is controlled by the state. If you don’t like private property rights, move to a country that forbids them.

    BTW, if the Heleys sue, they’ll win on constitutional grounds.

    • Fine. I’ll move in next to your house, and build a combination skeet range, crematorium, pig farm and demolition derby, since I am sure that you won:t mind the noise, ash and smell. Most people are of the opinion that one’s rights stop when they interfere with another’s rights, which is why we have building codes.

  7. Well I would sell my house and move to the country! You can build what you want on your property! There are no city codes, you can build it as big as you want! That’s my opinion!

    • Agreed. America would become a lawless country if anyone could build anything of any size, however tall,, however close to the neighbors, producing however much noise, and seeing whatever is in your neighbors’ yards and houses.

  8. I think that the people that wants the family to tear it down never had a treehouse or don’t have any children and just like a lot of other people they like to get in other people’s business and should let the kids have their treehouse and leave them alone

    • It’s a crows nest like in a ship, but 250 sq ft on 2 levels, one level
      is 28 feet up in the air. In a residential neighborhood that’s like the 4th floor
      of a house (if it had 4 floors). Imagine how much the noise would carry if
      kids climb up that high and start screaming and carrying on.

      Could they not settle for a tree store up just 6 feet off the ground? Isn’t that what you think of when you think of a treehouse?

    • John, in fact, most of the “people” you referred to have children, but for sure none of them have a gigantic treehouse that invades the neighbors’ privacy. I would say most of them would love to spend time on other things if the owners of this tree house did not misrepresent this apartment size structure as a normal “tree house” AND if they had respected the neighbors’ rights. Bluntly, the City was greatly misled and I feel sorry the City has had to spend their precious resources, time, and taxpayers’ money on a case like this.

  9. Hi Everyone, The bottomline is this structure cannot be called a “treehouse.” This thing is a tall imposing multilevel structure supported on concrete piers, wood posts, elaborate wood frames, covered by a roof, enclosed by walls, plus an open deck. It is like what you would do to build “a house.” It was constructed surrounding two big plants called trees.
    Could I build a house by a tree, or surround a tree, or somehow tack a couple of pieces of boards from a tree to the house, and, thus, bypass regulations and rules?

    A real estate professional testified at the meeting that this thing will reduce the property value of adjacent houses by 10% or more. Wow, that would translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars of reduction based on the average housing value in this area.
    In fact, this thing may even add monetary value to the “treehouse / play structure” owners’ property value, thus, further exacerbating the unfairness of this situation.
    I am not against “treehouses”. But I am against “unfairness,” improper use of the term to evade regulations, and doing things that would cause damages to my neighbors’ house values and privacy. Thanks for reading.

  10. Alice Kwei get a life and let your neighbors children have fun and enjoy what has been built for them on their privately owned property. I will never understand why people like you and your other neighbors are so petty and willing to simple fun and joyful activities away from children.

    • I couldn’t agree more, and not going to be the grinch who forced the tear down of the tree house. Also, teen suicides are skyrocketing with their lives disrupted, forced to stay home, jobless, school shutdown, not socializing with friends, family dislocations, anxiety and stress beyond the usual…, and now they want to force removal of tree house that might be the only fun in their lives? How cruel.

    • Absolutely nothing against tree houses or children having fun, but everything against violation of city ordinances and lack of respect for your neighbors ‘ rights to privacy, safety, and peace&quite enjoyment. This tree house is an illegal structure, period.

  11. The Council and staff met from 7 PM 8/25/2020 to 1 AM on 8/26/2020.
    We would like to commend the 5 councilwomen, Mr. Biggs, City Attorney, and all other staff for the hard work, keeping awake for 6 hours late at night, and decisions that have to be made.
    I am amazed they worked so hard, but have not gotten more praises. The Mayor also suggested to have more meetings to get business done (instead of getting them done in the hurry). We appreciate her and other councilwomen’s dedication to help the community. Their willingness to take the time to hear from everyone is important for us.

    So far this debate in the news article has been on a City decision that has already been made by the Council after hearing all the arguments and positions from the public, and after their own long and detailed deliberation.
    The Council’s decision is made based on the fact that this structure is NOT a treehouse. It is a “house,” a shelter, or a study room, or whatever you like to call it. But it is just NOT a treehouse.
    Thus, statements on some neighbors do not like treehouses (or are against kids) is simply NOT the truth.
    Those neighbors are against “this structure” because it is NOT a treehouse, NOT because it is a treehouse.
    Although the owner builder claims it is a treehouse, but, to many others, the owner builder has placed their kids selfish fun and grandiose future plans for further utilization of that “big extra house” way over that of neighbors’ equal rights to privacy and enjoyment of life. Plus it is causing a substantial diminished house value to the neighbors’ homes, while increasing his own. It is not fair and not just.

    Twisting this simple fact by still calling it a treehouse is propagation of a misuse, and also getting emotional is not necessary.
    I might add this appeal to the City by the owner builder is the final step in this whole saga. This is a City decision that should be accepted by all of us now, even if you do not like it.
    I am not sure who should be getting a life here.

  12. I agree with all of above comment with one change.
    Jon Biggs and his team were very much a part of this mess. If not for their the tree house would not have gone forward…or remained in place the past three years.
    Ditto for council and the planning commission. They could have enforced the code and required the structure demolished three years ago.
    If they had to stay awake until midnight to finally decide what they should have years ago, they created that problem themselves. No sympathy at all from me

  13. I am a licensed building official in the state I live. I work with building code daily, and have dealt plenty with zoning code. There are some really solid points made, and logical arguments. However, I would like to attempt to distill a couple points. First, there are really two factors here that people are debating… The first is whether or not what the owners built was insensitive to the neighbors based on privacy, etc. I could certainly side with Alice on this point, I and my kids would love such a structure, but would fear jeopardizing relationships with neighbors. However, that doesn’t break any laws or regulations, it’s merely opinion. Second, this all comes down to rules, regulations, definitions, and interpretations theirein. I believe the city will have a difficult time if this is not clearly codified into current regulations. Tree houses are not recognized in building code texts. In terms of accessory structures, the interpretation is generally regarded as tool sheds, play houses, and the like. Again, treehouses are not widely accepted in the code realm as such, though I can understand one attributing such language. There are many new things popping up that zoning and building codes have not caught up with: accessory dwelling units (ADUs), tiny houses (newly regulated in the building code as an appendix), pergolas, and tree houses to name a few. The city can and will make interpretations on the terminology, because in some sense a mailbox post can be a structure, but I think ultimately it will be decided by a judge.

    Decades ago there was a monster tree house built in St. Louis Park, MN that I read about while studying code and legal aspects. The city first ordered it to be removed, then at least to be inspected for safety. The owner had a point to make as I recall reading, and it went way up the courts. In the end, he won. I believe I recently read that it actually came down in a storm a few years ago. I would add though, that it was largely supported by the tree itself, at least from the photos. Look it up, there’s as fair but of info on it. I would also add, zoning regulations and building code are related, but yet are very different. With enough money, time, and engineering analysis, anything can be built. Building code tells you how to do it to the minimum safeguards, zoning will dictate if and where you can build it.

    If I were king, I’d love to see the structure get the signed, stamped nod of approval from a duly licensed structural engineer to ensure safety. Beyond that, if zoning regulations are silent, sorry neighbors…

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