A Stump Is Not A Tree, A Shed Is Not A House


Count us among the folks regularly amazed by all the wondrous structures Pete Nelson and his “Treehouse Masters” crew can build in all sorts of trees.

But even though some of the designs can be a bit exotic, we’ve never seen anybody come to blows over them.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for what has become Park Ridge’s most famous/infamous “treehouse” at 916 N. Western Ave. Unlike the lush canopies in which Pete and his crew construct their dwellings, however, this one isn’t lodged among serveral sturdy limbs. Instead, it’s perched on what looks to be a five-foot stumpSo it’s actually a “stumphouse” rather than a treehouse, despite its almost 15-foot height.

With its elevated walkway and slides, and at a reported cost of $26,000, we’re surprised the owners didn’t spring for some artificial leafy branches – and maybe even a few Ewoks – to complete the tableau.

A few fake leafy branches, however, probably wouldn’t have been enough to smooth the feathers the stumphouse has ruffled among some of its neighbors.

As reported in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Support for Park Ridge treehouse led to fistfight, neighbors say,” March 1) and on last Tuesday (March 1) night’s WGN news, an altercation occurred between the stumphouse’s next-door neighbor, who posted a yard sign supporting the structure, and another neighbor whose critical review of the stumphouse was a one middlefinger up. The result: battery charges pending against the supportive neighbor.

One reason we have building and zoning codes is to provide some uniformity and predictability in the appearance and use of private properties in the community. Designed and administered properly, such codes smooth the rough edges and should, at least indirectly, reduce tensions between neighbors over how they use and maintain their property.

So when a structure provokes fisticuffs, it’s probably a good idea to take a closer look into how it got built in the first place. And when we checked the stumphouse documents posted on the City’s website we found some very curious things.

For starters, we found only one permit, No. B1401057 (issued May 29, 2014), having been issued for a “Deck/Deck Addition” valued at $2,400 and carrying a $156 permit fee. That sure doesn’t sound like a permit for a $26,000 stumphouse, so we dug a little deeper. And what we discovered is that about five months after that permit was issued, things started to take a turn for the strange.

According to an October 29, 2014 “Hi Joe” e-mail from the City’s then-Zoning Coordinator, Ed Cage, the permit’s “Deck/Deck Addition” description had mysteriously morphed into what Cage was calling a “deck/treehouse.” Curiously enough, Cage actually warned Solomon against seeking a “variance option” which, according to Cage, “is going to be tough because your neighbor will come to the meetings and it will not go smoothly.”

Can’t you almost see the Chicago-style winks and nods in Cage’s words?

Next, the City’s then-Building Administrator, Lonnie Spires, sent Solomon a November 24, 2014 e-mail in which Spires references the original “deck permit” as having been revised according to some unspecified “drawings.” But we could find no new or revised permit referencing a $26,000 “deck/treehouse” (or “deck/stumphouse”). Nor does it appear that the Solomons paid any additional permit fee for a stumphouse costing 10 times the declared cost of their original “Deck/Deck Addition.”

By March 2015, Cage had departed for a similar job with the City of Wood Dale, and Spires was gone to the Village of Plainfield by June 2015. As best as we can tell, their respective tenures with the City were less than three years. We also hear they were hand-picked hires of the City’s Community Preservation & Development Director, Jim Testin, although we do not yet have confirmation of that.

Irrespective of how they obtained their City employment, however, they were Testin’s subordinates. And if they screwed up, Testin most definitely should be held accountable for that.

Upon inheriting this odd situation, Cage’s successor, Howard Coppari, inspected the stumphouse before e-mailing Testin on July 6, 2015, to advise him that the Solomons’ “Deck/Deck Addition” violated Code because the “deck” was actually an “elevated walkway” more than 8 feet in the air and not attached to the house. He also advised Testin that the Solomons dropped Cage’s and Spires’ names “constantly when [he] was on their property.”

You know, the way some Chicago folks might drop their alderman’s or ward committeeman’s name in the course of dealing with some pesky inspector.

But apparently it didn’t work with Coppari, who sent an August 19, 2015 letter to the Solomons reiterating some of the things he told Testin, and calling the stumphouse “a shed” that was taller than the Code’s 12-foot height limit for sheds.

From everything we’ve been able to check, Coppari’s findings seem to be correct. Which calls into question Cage’s and Spires’ judgment, actions and motives.

The Solomons appealed from Coppari’s determination, and their appeal was addressed at the January 28, 2016 Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. At that hearing the Solomons – through their attorney – focused on the Cage and Spires e-mails, and on the verbal assurances they allegedly gave the Solomons about the structures.

Although the ZBA members empathized with the Solomons’ situation, they noted the Code violations and the gaps in the Solomons’ paperwork before choosing to uphold the Code requirements and Coppari’s decision.

Now the Solomons are saying they will take the City to court on the ZBA’s rejection of their appeal.

Sadly, this hasn’t been the first instance where the building department’s seeming incompetence and slipshod paperwork have caused rather than resolved problems.

For example, we wrote several posts about the residence at 322 Vine (e.g., 05.23.12) and how the then-Building Administrator, Steve Cutaia, since departed for parts unknown, appears to have botched the City’s inspection and certification process so badly – and reportedly gave such ill-advised verbal assurances to the owners – that the then-City attorney couldn’t even use Cutaia as a witness to prosecute the Code violations.

We can’t help but wonder if that would be the case if Cage and/or Spires were subpoenaed to testify in a court hearing regarding the stumphouse. Assuming, of course, that the Solomons actually follow through and sue the City.

And we also can’t help but wonder if the mere sight of the stumphouse would make Pete Nelson and his Treehouse Masters crew cringe.

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