How to Save a Tree House from a Zoning Board: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and Their Sons Take on Local Bureaucracy

By Swain, Joshua; Mangu-Ward, Katherine | Reason, March 2012 | Go to article overview

How to Save a Tree House from a Zoning Board: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and Their Sons Take on Local Bureaucracy


Swain, Joshua, Mangu-Ward, Katherine, Reason


THE Swiss FAMILY Robinson, shipwrecked builders of what may be history's most famous tree house, were lucky their arbor of choice was sited 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, II--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 backyard 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. …

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