"The story below could happen to you or anybody."
That's how Lynn Tran starts the tale of her oceanfront treehouse, a "childhood dream" that has soured into a "headache, heartache." She and her husband, Richard Hazen, have been told that if they don't dismantle the treehouse, they're going to have to pay fines of $500 a day.
She and Hazen built the treehouse -- "really just a dressed-up, glorified two-story deck," reports Fox 13 of Tampa Bay -- on their property on Anna Maria Island in Florida, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They spent about $20,000 on it and, they say, had Holmes Beach's permission.
But they didn't get it in writing.
According to the account on the couple's website, CoolTreeHouse.com, Hazen did go to the city building department in 2011 seeking a permit, but the building official there -- after consulting colleagues in front of Hazen -- told him a permit wasn't necessary. So they went ahead and built.
That official is no longer with the department, and the new official says they do need a permit. And they can't have one, because the treehouse violates a number of codes, he says.
Coastal zoning comes into play too, so the state is also involved. And there's the small matter of hurricanes and structural safety to consider.
Plus, Hazen and Tran make their living as owners of Angelinos Sea Lodge, where they live in the main house and rent out four cottages. At least initially, they apparently intended to let guests use the treehouse. (They say now that it's strictly for their private use, but in November 2011 the Islander community weekly quoted her as saying: "It was just built for the private use of guests and my own use.")
It's a complicated case that's been tangled in bureaucracy since November 2011.
And for many homeowners, it's likely to strike a chord. Many of us feel powerless against City Hall, subject to its arbitrary whims.
This particular case, though, may be a little more nuanced. First, it sounds as if Hazen, in his initial visit to city planning, characterized his plan simply as a treehouse -- so maybe the (former) city official can be forgiven if that conjured an image of a few boards hammered to a tree, not the $20,000 Swiss Family Robinson-style double-decker structure that ultimately arose.
Indeed, according to the Anna Maria Island Sun, the inspector told the newspaper in 2012 "that he thought Hazen was proposing building a simple deck in the tree, and said he wished he had asked to see a rendering of what turned into a three-level project with glass walls, a roof and a staircase."
On the other hand, the homeowners might reasonably have thought that a treehouse is a treehouse is a treehouse, and that they had permission to build a treehouse. They don't have children, so it's possible that it never occurred to them that the inspector might have been imagining a much humbler structure.
I'm not sure there's necessarily a bad guy in this story. Maybe not even a lesson, really.
Except that you should always, always get it in writing.
But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.