This two-story tree house supported by an Australian pine and two wood columns has become the object of a years-long tug-of-war between town officials and a local mom-and-pop guest house.
This two-story tree house supported by an Australian pine and two wood columns has become the object of a years-long tug-of-war between town officials and a local mom-and-pop guest house.

If you want to know how big a deal coastal construction and zoning regulations can be, you don’t have to look further than the tree house at Angelinos Sea Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast getaway at Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, Fla.

Kathy Prucnell, a reporter for the Anna Maria Islander, has been following the saga of the tree house since fall of 2011, when officials at the Holmes Beach, Fla., City Hall first got wind of the structure through an anonymous phone call (“HB officials ponder tree hut construction,” by Kathy Prucnell). City officials referred the matter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) — and that’s when things got serious.

Richard Hazen and his wife Lynn Tran Hazen said they had asked the city if there were rules about tree houses and were told that there were not, the Islander reports. The Hazens, whose home includes four rooms offered as vacation rentals, intended the tree house as a spot where guests could “read, write, relax and dine,” the paper reported.

By August of 2012, the Florida DEP was ready to crack down — ordering the tree house torn down, or moved and rebuilt to code (“DEP: Remove or modify tree house,” by Kathy Prucnell). Among other things, the DEP said that “the state requires permits for building seaward of the coastal construction control line [CCCL] to protect the coastal system from structures that can destabilize or destroy the beach and dune system,” the Islander reported.

But the Hazen’s attorney, David Levin of the Sarasota, Fla., firm of Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A., obtained an engineer’s report saying that the structure’s impact on the land was minimal — and maintaining that the tree house constituted a “minor activity,” exempt from the permit requirements of the CCCL.

This January, the tree house was still there — and so was the bureaucratic process, reported the Islander (“DEP: Tree house owner can apply for construction permit,” by Kathy Prucnell). “The owners of Angelinos Sea Lodge — previously ordered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to remove or modify the property’s beachfront tree house — will now be allowed to apply for a permit for the structure they began seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line more than a year ago,” the paper reported.

And now, attorney Levin has asked the town to grant the Hazens an exemption from permitting for the as-built structure, reports the Islander (“HB lodge seeks ‘after-the-fact’ exemption for tree hut,” by Kathy Prucnell). Levin argued that state regulations exempt “minor activities which do not cause an adverse impact on the coastal system and do not cause a disturbance to any significant or primary dune.” And he said the tree house, supported by a tree and two posts “similar to those supporting other exempt structures, such as beach awnings and other shades, typically found along the beach,” is located behind an existing seawall that was buried by the state during a beach renourishment project. “It would be virtually impossible for such poles to have measurable impact on the coastal system,” wrote Levin.

Public opinion in town appears to be mixed. One commenter wrote, “Once again, a citizen pushes the envelope way too far... Build it to code.” Another wrote, “Without DOT fair oversight of public lands, we’d have hundreds of goofy, unsafe structures littering our dunes.” But the tree house has its fans: Wrote one, “Last November we watched the care and attention Mr. Hazen was giving his new construction. I think it looks fabulous in keeping with the old Floridian style.” Another wrote, “Finally something gets built on our island that isn’t hulking, atrocious, and utterly out of place, so of course the village idiots in charge must tear it down.”

Tree houses to one side, Holmes Beach has bigger fish to fry. The town is now embroiled in a far-reaching controversy over home construction, triggered by a trend toward investor-built homes with as many as six bedrooms, permitted as single-family homes but intended for use as vacation rentals. On February 7, city commissioners imposed a freeze on all new construction in the town. After an outcry, however, the town agreed to reconsider, just a week later, reported the Islander (“AM commission may reconsider ban on building projects,” by Rick Catlin).

“Holmes Beach builder Greg Ross of Ross Built Construction Co. said at the Feb. 14 meeting that he has several projects under development and on hold in Anna Maria because of the administrative moratorium,” reported the Islander. “His projects are nearly ready for permit submission, he said.”

And the tree house behind the dune? Time will tell.