Cherubic towheads Dillon and Logan Olson fought City Hall and won.
The brothers, 12 and 8, were not spoiling for a battle, but when someone complained that the tree house their grandpa built in the Olsons’ front yard violated city building codes, they had no choice.
The tree house sits on four 4-by-4s, is surrounded by a porch-like railing on three sides and sits, at its closest, 5 feet from the front sidewalk. The building is partially supported by the branches of a linden tree.
The Board of Adjustment voted 6-0 to waive the setback requirement. One member of the board, the boy’s other grandfather, abstained. The decision surprised no one. Who could look into those angelic faces and say, “No”?
On the other hand, how could a conscientious city official cave in to the appeal of a family that ignored city codes at the expense of their neighbors?
At first, the construction of an oversized tree house aroused the curmudgeon in my soul.
As much as it delighted Dillon, Logan and their parents, the board’s ruling was a bad decision. The entire board, including the abstaining grandfather, should have voted “No.” Everyone, including the grandfather who built the tree house, should have known better.
Most adult homeowners and nearly every carpenter would have known. When Billings was still a tent city at the turn of the 19th century, folks bought lots and built on them anything in any fashion they fancied. A landowner could build a house touching his neighbor’s house, build a tool shed in the front yard, run a sawmill or keep a few hogs in the backyard. If it was your land, you used it as you pleased.
Billings was lucky in its youth. Many towns built in this fashion watched their main streets burn to the ground at least once. When the ashes cooled, merchants rebuilt with brick and stone. Thereafter local lore would remember how the old town burned to cinders then rose like a phoenix. It was always a phoenix, never a pheasant or peacock.
Building and zoning regulations were honed and codified over the generations. Today all houses are built a foot from the neighbor’s lot, a prescribed distance from both street and alley.
Code enforcement was sloppy in the early days – not because City Council or Board of Adjustment members were soft on scofflaws. There was no evidence of bribery, little suspicion of favoritism. The codes were simply bent or broken by officials who could not resist a good sob story. The Olsons’ appeal was one of those.
The brothers Olson, no doubt encouraged by their parents, courted the neighbors. The pair collected 61 signatures of people supporting a variance for their tree house.
Without knowing how wide the boys cast their net, it’s impossible to know how enthusiastic the petition signers were. How many refused? Were those farthest from the Olson house the most reluctant?
Does anyone believe that four-legged tree house the size of a small apartment breaking the sight line of 300 feet of lawns, will increase the property value of their neighboring homes?
“If you think it’s a good idea that we should keep our tree house, you should sign this,” the boys would say to people whose signatures they solicited.
The members of the Board of Adjustment took the matter rather lightly. At least, they wasted little sweat in searching for an alternative to the “Yes” “No” options they seemed to have considered.
Someone might have suggested a neighborhood fundraiser to move the tree house to the backyard. Mayor Willard Fraser would have put the arm on a local construction company to use its crane to make the move. A volunteer gang of handy folks could have knocked the building down and rebuilt it.
Mulling the alternatives has done less to raise my ire than to thaw the cold spot in my heart.
I ask myself, “Should the accomplishments of charm be rejected in a world where deceit, intimidation and economic muscle are praised?”
Why not? Thugs, grafters, grifters, drifters, quick change artists and politicians use the sleaziest of their talents to get their way. Why shouldn’t a pair of button-nosed Cub Scouts get their way?