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City deems tree house a safety hazard

By Michelle McNiel, The Wenatchee World, Wash.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 12--WENATCHEE -- Zeb Postelwait always wanted to build a tree house for his boys.

He had plenty of ideas, but it wasn't until he bought an old home in Wenatchee's historic district a little over a year ago that he finally had a big tree of his own to build one.

Postelwait started building the elevated structure on Father's Day last June. Two months later, he got his first notice from the city to tear it down.

Now Postelwait and the city are at a standoff over the tree house.

The City Council, Mayor Frank Kuntz, city staff and the city attorney's office all view it as a liability and a threat to public safety. It overhangs a public sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue, is built in a softwood tree, and it was built in city right-of-way without a required permit.

"If something happens, the city is liable for the damages," Kuntz said. "The council was unanimous in directing me to do what we're doing. It has to come down."

But Postelwait, owner of LeMolo Cafe & Deli, said he doesn't believe the tree house violates any city codes because it is not obstructing the sidewalk. He said city codes don't prevent something from obstructing the air space some 30 feet above the sidewalk.

"I feel that I'm within the law and they have not explained how I'm outside the law," he said. "I just think this is a big waste of city money and time."

The city did offer to let Postelwait keep the tree house if he takes out a $1 million insurance policy on it and applies for a permit, which would require an engineering inspection. But he has so far declined.

"A million dollars? For a tree house?" Postelwait said. "Come on!"

So now the city is planning to hire Pacific Engineering of Wenatchee to evaluate the structural integrity of the tree house, said City Attorney Steve Smith. Once that is done, the city is prepared to seek a court order to have the structure removed. If push comes to shove, the city will forcibly remove the tree house, Smith said. He added that this is the first time that he knows of that the city has pursued enforcement on a tree house.

If it comes to that, he said, the city would bill Postelwait for the engineering study, the city's legal fees and the cost of removing the structure.

"I hate to do that," Smith said. "We've sent him lots of warning letters. If he'd just take it down, we could avoid all that."

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Smith said his primary concern is that the tree house isn't safe. He said it's built in an exotic tree species called a tree of heaven. It's a softwood tree that the attorney described as a "big weed".

"I'm worried about that thing coming down in a windstorm," he said. "I wouldn't let my kids play in it." Postelwait agreed with the "weed" description for the tree. But added, "It's a pretty sturdy weed, and a healthy one."

He said there are about 10 big bolts anchoring the tree house to the tree at its widest point -- about 18 inches across. There is also a cable system rated to 800 pounds supporting the structure. He said he talked with an engineer before building it.

"There's no way the wind will blow it over," he added.

Postelwait is still hoping to reason with the city, but said he believes he would prevail if it ends up in court.

"How can they take me to court over an obstruction that doesn't exist?" he asked. "I don't want to fight over this. I just think it's ridiculous that they are going after a tree house."

He added, ""If they could prove to me that this is against code, I'd take it down. But until then, they are just harassing me."

Reach Michelle McNiel at 509-664-7152 or mcniel@wenatcheeworld.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MichelMcNielWW.

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(c)2014 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

Visit The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) at www.wenatcheeworld.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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