On May 22, a diligent public servant at Los Angeles City Hall wrote a letter to a Venice homeowner about the treehouse that's been in her yard for 10 years. And you just know, don't you, that a story with this beginning will not have a happy ending?
Back then, Antonio Villaraigosa was in his final weeks as mayor, having presided over a precipitous decline in city services during his eight years. He has since gone on to greater glory, signing on last week as an advisor with Herbalife, a company that has been accused of operating an illegal pyramid scheme and is under attack from Latino civil rights groups.
But I digress. The owner of the well-maintained treehouse is Eileen Erickson. She lives on a Venice walk street not all that far from a neighborhood I wrote about recently in which residents spent years begging the city to repave their horribly potholed streets, only to be told that they would have to pay to fix their own curbs first. So you can understand Erickson's surprise and frustration when she opened the letter from the city's Department of Building and Safety and read through two pages of bureaucratic gibberish identifying no fewer than 17 code violations. She was ordered to "demolish" the treehouse or face thousands of dollars in fines and possible imprisonment.
"Everyone thinks it's ludicrous, given the many problems in the city," Erickson wrote to her council office at one point during her ongoing nightmare. She noted in that correspondence that she gathered hundreds of signatures from neighbors hoping to save the treehouse, which has been treasured by many children.
Erickson would like to save the treehouse on principle, but there's another motivation as well. And she got a little choked up when she told me about it.
"My husband passed away three years ago, and he was a Vietnam vet," Erickson said of Sid, who suffered from neurological disease related to Agent Orange exposure.
Sid and Eileen, who had five children, had talked many times about replacing a play structure in their yard that had been destroyed, amazingly enough, by a direct lightning hit many years ago. Sid fancied a Cape Cod-style fort, but Eileen wanted something a little more Huck Finn. They came to a happy compromise only after reading about a guy named Jo Scheer, a Vietnam vet from Oregon who built hootch-style treehouses modeled after the structures he had seen during the war.
Eileen invited Scheer to come to L.A. with his family and stay with the Ericksons while he built the treehouse, with assistance from Sid. The two vets bonded instantly, and so did the rest of their families.
"We had a blast," said Scheer, whose family enjoyed bike rides on Venice Beach, which they hadn't visited prior to the invitation from the Ericksons.
The treehouse, meanwhile, was a bamboo masterpiece, caressed by pine and fig tree branches and featuring a basket and pulley to raise cookies, lemonade and other treats up to the shaded, treetop oasis. The Erickson kids loved it, as the grandchildren now do, and everyone in the neighborhood is welcome to join them.
Adults have gotten their kicks up there too. Eileen hosted a book club meeting in the treehouse, and on special occasions, she and Sid enjoyed romantic overnight stays under rustling leaves and salt-air drifts.
And then 10 years in, out of the blue, came the letter saying the treehouse was built without permits and had to be destroyed and removed.
"An inspection has revealed that the property … is in violation of Los Angeles Municipal Code sections listed below," it said, adding that Eileen would be charged $356.16 for the inspection and could be in for thousands of additional dollars in permit fees and penalties, if not imprisonment.
Erickson has been speaking out against McMansionization of houses in Venice, and she suspects that one of the local mansionizers tried to get back at her by reporting the treehouse to City Hall. But Erickson was unaware that a permit was needed, and in fact had seen a Times story on treehouses that led her to believe hers was in compliance.
She has since spent countless mind-numbing hours trying to get hold of city officials, visiting city offices, trying to decipher municipal codes and having more than a few emails and phone calls ignored. On Friday, Councilman Mike Bonin's staff apologized for not getting back to her and promised there would be an effort to help Erickson "navigate through the system" and "help close the gap between where you are and where you need to be…."
Erickson said she is reluctantly willing to pay a $3,500 fee for a variance, but there would be no guarantee that her problems would end with that. Based on her research, she suspects another reason the city might swing a wrecking ball is that the treehouse — and the trees, which were there long before she and Sid arrived on the scene — are too close to a public right of way that takes pedestrians along the walk street.
It's all a little unclear at the moment how things will end.
What is clear is that in a city with countless code violations and thousands of miles of ruptured sidewalks and bombed-out streets, there ought to be smarter use of time and resources, and doing business with City Hall shouldn't always have to be such a nightmare.
Yeah, there may technically be a code violation here. But can't just one public servant somewhere in the machinery have the sense to say, "Hey, we've got better things to do than dig up 17 code violations on a few grandchildren having a lemonade and graham cracker party in a treehouse on their own property?"
Come on now. Am I asking too much?