This Permitted 30 SQF Kids Fort Has Stood off a Back Alley Near the US Capitol Since 2015. The DC Government Spent 5 Years Trying to Get the Castle Torn Down. The Owners Took the Case to Federal Court, Representing Themselves. The District Assigned 7 Senior Attorneys to the Case Before Finally Agreeing to Let the Tree House Alone.

TREE HOUSE UPDATE, OCTOBER 2022:  Welcome to the Capitol Hill tree house blog, which has attracted over 94,000 views since its inception in 2016.  We, the tree house-building parents, Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, created this site with help from local supporters during the Archibald Walk SE media blitz of the winter of 2015-2016.  Our little blog has drawn steady traffic ever since, mainly due to extensive coverage of the tree house saga by the Washington PostMedia interest came as a real surprise. 


Our daughters' 30 SQF tree house has survived until now, although the DC Dept. of Transportation (DDOT) worked assiduously to get the permitted structure torn down for almost five years.  Legal appeals of the 2018 decision of DC Public Space Committee to compel us to "abate" the fort from 20" of public air space dragged on from 2016 to 2021.  The District's concerted effort to push the tree house out of a tiny sliver of public space--read destroy it--cost District taxpayers dearly in lawyers' hours, as the case slowly wended its way through the court system.  The matter ultimately landed in the US District Court of DC (Federal Court), before settling in court mediation in fall 2020.  The mediated agreement merely codified the solution we'd asked of DDOT from the get go: leave the treehouse alone until our girls were old enough to have lost interest in it.  

A team of DC government attorneys came at the tree house again and again, even though it's just a fort designed for little kids to play in. Moreover, the small group of neighbors who'd pushed for its destruction in late 2015 had abandoned their campaign in less than a year.  Fortunately, the tree house case settlement agreement, reached under the auspices of the US Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, preserves the structure until early 2024, by which time both of our girls will be done with elementary school.

We're pleased that the tree house hung on through the pandemic, where it was a wondrous place for cooped-up children to play.  Although we had to cancel our Mothers Day 2020 open house during the shelter-in-place period, along with our 2020 and 2021 Independence Day open houses, the castle made the Uncommon District photography blog in 2020.  The tree house featured in "Photographing While Social Distancing, Part 3."  During Covid, young families with homes nearby have often played socially distanced games around the tree house, e.g. badminton, soccer and hockey.  

There's a simple reason that the castle can still be found off an alley enclave near Eastern Market, more than seven years since DDOT first ordered us to demolish it.  The agency issued us with a public space construction permit under a DCRA construction code (not as a temporary public space rental permit, as City lawyers later claimed) in fall 2015, and let that authorization close out the same month.  With a closed permit in hand, we were in a position to push back against DC's long campaign to destroy the tree house.  In court filings, lawyers argued that the play fort must go because it "blocks travel," but can see that the plywood structure doesn't overhang a paved surface.  Moreover, the alley in question, Archibald Walk, has long been closed to vehicular traffic

In the fall of 2015, after our building permit had already closed out, 11 residents around the block signed a petition to get the tree house torn down, addressed to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B.  In mid-2016, we realized that neither of the zoning commissions that had come at the fort to appease the objecting neighbors--not the (ANC) 6B Planning & Zoning Committee nor the Public Space Committee (PSC)--had the authority to overrule permits.  At that point--please excuse our gall--we decided to spread the word that permitting agencies are known to demand that homeowners demolish structures covered by valid permits.  Fail to comply with an unlawful permit revocation and face mounting fines: homeowner beware.  

In early 2018, we countersued DDOT in US District Court, representing ourselves, to stop the City from collecting zoning violation fines totaling more than $8,000.  In fact, we did all of our own legal work.  We sued to challenge the agency's denial of our right to due process in permitting.  Our countersuit was such a low-priority matter for the courts that judges were in no hurry to hear the case.  In the course of five years of litigation, the tree house children grew from tiny tots into big kids, ages 10 and 12.

On 12/28/18, the popular DCist: News, Food, Art & Events blog ran a feature on Not-in-My-Back-Alley squabbles.  Deane Madsen brought readers up to date on the castle with the first media report poking fun at DDOT''s incompetent permitting work.  The witty Madsen notes that DDOT sent citations to a "non-existent Mr. Lee" (vs. to our Mr. Bing Yee) fining him $8,000 for failing to tear his tree house down.

The Washington Post also reported on the denoument of the tree house saga at Thanksgiving 2020 with their fourth and final installment in a series of articles.  The newspaper described how, against long odds, the castle at 516 Archibald Walk SE, can stay where it is for several more years. The Post articles alluded to DDOT's permitting malfeasance, incompetence and intransience in the tree house matter, which ran District taxpayers a hefty six-figure sum in court time and lawyers' fees.

CBS WUSA Channel 9 produced an upbeat 1-minute clip on the resolution of the saga at Thanksgiving 2020.  The camera crew showed the tree house from a child's prospective, making it our favorite media story.  The clip depicts the castle just as it is, nothing more than a whimsical, temp play space for kids, sticking out a few inches over a mulched, wood-enclosed tree box off a Capitol Hill alley, blocking nothing.

The Yee girls playing dress-up at the back of the Archibald Walk "U," spring 2018.


If you're a tourist on Capitol Hill who likes getting off the beaten path, it's not difficult to find the tree house that caused all the fuss.  The play fort's exterior is easily viewed from Archibald Walk SE, a "U"-shaped public alley looping off F Street Terrace.  The alley network is located a couple blocks south of Eastern Market, extending between 6th and 7th and E and G Streets, a peaceful world unto itself that's worth exploring.  Archibald Walk SE, paved in tinted concrete, loops off F St. Terrace, paved in gray stamped pavers.


POTTER HOUSE:  The castle was Hogwarts 2019 and 2020, with us as Potter characters in a Halloween trick-or-treating ensemble and at a birthday paty.  See pictures at Dress Up Gatherings.  We hosted a high-spirited Potter-themed bash for 3rd graders, with help from some neighbors.  Who knew that the south arm of the Walk, with its 15-foot-high walls of historic warehouses, would make an ideal Quidditch pitch

TRIBUTE: In 2018, we lost a dear friend and hero, the indomitable Charity Tillemann-Dick, age 35.  Charity, tree house lover, was instrumental in creating this site

VISION ZERO:  In recent years, DDOT leaders have come in for criticism by Council of DC Members for failing to make adequate progress in implementing the agency's Vision Zero initiative.  The scheme has the goal of reducing annual traffic deaths in DC to 0 by the year 2024.  Sadly, there are generally still about two dozen road fatalities in the City each year.  Public outrage over the needless deaths of pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders on unsafe streets continues to generate negative press for DDOT.    

SAFETY FIRST: We believe that DDOT should committ more taxpayer funds to bolstering public safety and none to beating up on kids forts.  Agency leaders lost persepctive on DDOT's core mission in tasking attorneys with demolishing a tree house, built above a public-private mulched tree box that poses no threat to the public.  Even so, one DC lawyer after another was given the unenviable job of ensuring that the structure is demolished or moved because it overhangs unusuable alley space slightly.  See Castle Paper Trail for a list of the attorneys who, embarrassingly, authored tree house briefs.  The names include  a Deputy DC Attorney General and the DC Solicitor General.  

GOVERNMENT WASTE: DDOT's nutty campaign to remove a child's fort built for less than $2,000 was a gross misuse of public resources.  DC circles the wagons in a trifling zoning matters to warn homeowners not to challenge permitting wrongdoing, the stuff of political farce.  Kids age out of their play forts, then families take them down. 

BAD PRESS FOR THE DISTRICT PROMPTED SPENDING MADNESS.  DDOT's abuse of authority in the tree house matter stemmed from Post coverage of our accusations of government wrongdoing.  In 2018, agency leaders sent several senior attorneys, a DDOT division chief, and a senior forester to a dead-ended full-day mediation session to grind us into submission.  That fall, at an inconsequential hearing at the DC Court of Appeals, the City turned up with four lawyers.  Yet DDOT could have ended the litigation at any point along the way, freeing up City lawyers to do real work in the public interest, simply by agreeing to let the harmless tree house alone for a few more years.

CITY COUNCIL NOT INTERESTED.  None of the Council of DC Members on the Committee on Transportation and the Environment (providing DDOT oversight) indicated a willingness to challenge the wacky government waste in question, a team of OAG attorneys trying to get child's fort torn down, year after year.  We see scope for the Committee to pressure DDOT to honor public space construction permits granted to ordinary homeowners, particularly for small projects.  The same can be said of ANC 6B's leadership.  See our letter to the Committee members inviting them to an open house.  

EYES WIDE OPEN: 1/28/22 marked the 6TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DC PUBLIC SPACE COMMITTEE MEETING at which the chair tore up the permit authorizing the tree house in plain sight  Our message to the City has been that when administrative agencies unlawfully revoke building permits like that, DC's investment climate takes a hit.  We hope that this bizarre little zoning case has helped expose permitting incompetence and ingrained homeowner-hostile practices.  If other DC residents are better able to defend rights conferred by permanent permits as a result of our having dug in to challenge DDOT bumbling and wrongdoing, litigation was a small price to pay.  

The Post Metro Section ran this report in January 2018:

MOST CLUED-IN PRESS COVERAGE:  The story about our countersuit in US District Court was scooped by the DC URBAN REAL ESTATE BLOG.  Their report alone explored why and how we challenged DDOT's denial of due process in permitting in Federal court.  Find a list of dozens of other tree house-related media links under Press Coverage

Neighborhood Support: Capitol Hill Tree House Community Events 2015-2022:


Hill families have stopped by Archibald Walk after the Capitol Hill Independence Day parade on 8th St, two blocks west, most years since the first tear-down order came.  During the early 2016 media blitz, Slate Magaine's Nora Caplan-Bricker called the tree house "a monument to freedom."  At July 4th and Mother's Day open houses, changing neighborhood demographics have been on vivid display as neighborhood children, accompanied by parents and grandparents, celebrated the play fort's survival.  Each event has drawn over 100 kids, although the ANC 6B-03 Commissioner for the Walk in 2015, Jim Loots, proclaimed to the media that we'd "dedicated public space for exclusively private purposes...with no benefit whatsoever to the public at large" in building the tree house.

The open houses have been fun for small fry in the community. Teens serve as monitors in the elm, helping keep young visitors safe.  A rope-and-pulley controlled bird feeder system lets kids fill several feeders from the alley.  Visiting children have fun playing Crusaders in knights helmets.  Inside the fort, young visitors bang a gong, ring farm bells, peer through a toy telescope, blow bubbles, have tea parties, try out climbing rocks on the tree trunk, raise a supplies bucket and draw on a chalkboard.  Children have also collected stamps in "castle passports."  Tree house frequent fliers mix with first-time visitors, from babies to grandparents. A few neighbors who once opposed the tree house join in.  Each year that the play fort has survived has felt like a victory over construction permitting abuses in DC. 

An adhoc nerf arrows archery range has been a draw at the open houses.  Arrows are trapped nicely by the high walls of the two historic "Walker Dairy" warehouses sheltering the south arm of Archibald Walk.  A new generation of Hill residents appreciates an out-of-the-way historic walkway ("Marks Alley" in the day), making happy memories of participating in kid-friendly celebrations around the tree house. 


Game of Capture-the-Castle, June, 2018.  Hill kids have grown attached to our kids fort over the years at open houses, play dates, parties and birdwatching events.  See Dress-Up Gatherings.  We were concerned that, if this kids fort was demolished prematurely, it would have been the last substantial tree house built in a DC Historic District for a generation.  The Hill historic preservationists who came at the structure would do well to explain how backyard play spaces pose a threat to ongoing architectural restoration efforts.  Which old building is threatened by a child's fort?  We believe that the DC community can balance safety, heritage, public space and the need to promote outdoor play for children.  When City leaders ensure that the Historic Districts are child-friendly, they encourage the young families making their lives in them to thoughtfully invest in their classic properties.  One result is that parents become motivated to help the Department of Public Works maintain public alleys providing access to play spaces.    

Hill Tree House Foam Sword Battles for the Ages:


Our last open house pre-Covid was a wonderful time on a cold afternoon.  Neighborhood kids converged on the Walk, with (foam) sword fighting emerging as the most popular activity.  More than 60 people rocked in to chat over pie and hot cider.  A hard-working teen tree house monitor kept good order in the elm, giving the grown-ups below a chance to relax.  Alley visitors enjoyed filling the play fort's inventive pulley-and-rope-controlled bird feeders and bird bath.  More pictures at Photo Gallery.


What luck!  Seventy well-behaved knights from Mr. Tony's popular adventure camp, for ages 3-8, defended the castle.  They had help from a dozen stellar camp counselors.  The camp is a popular summer program for local children, serving hundreds each year.  The adventure campers honed their archery skills on the Walk and made pine cone bird feeders to take home.  See Photo Gallery for more pictures of the camp's visit.

When District Zoning Commissions Overstep their Authority, Who's Watching and Challenging?

How did the future of a permitted kids fort wind up on the agenda of a meeting of the PSC, a City-wide zoning commission lacking the authority to revoke building permits?   In the summer of 2015, we built a tree house off a narrow "U"-shaped back alley on the Hill.  The open fort, which encorporates elaborate safety and security features was painted to match our SE house.  The structure was built in an environmentally-friendly manner.  We hired a DDOT Urban Forestry Division-recommended arborist, to advise us on the care of our rare American elm, planted in the 1920s.  Elms are uncommon to DC, because more than 80% succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease decades ago.  The host tree is thriving: you can see that it's is in far better circulatory health than when we built the tree house.

Over the winter of 2015-16, the leadership of ANC 6B-03 got retroactive review of our construction permit on the agenda of a DC Public Space Committee meeting.  The Committee voted 4-0, with an abstention by DCRA-Construction, to overrule the permit, portending the fort's immediate destruction.  However, since the PSC lacks the authority to revoke permits, the Committee was not within its rights to vote on the matter at all.  The Mayor's Order establishing the PSC did not grant the body the power to withdraw permits.  We were unaware of ANC and PSC overreach at the time, having been told by ANC leaders that post hoc review of our construction permit was mandatory.  The PSC Chair, DDOT's Matthew Marcou, insisted that we should have gone through a (non-existent) process for permitting DC tree houses in 2015.  See the PSC's unfathomable letter announcing their decision to get rid of the tree house. 

Litigation preserved the castle.  After the PSC vote, we considered inching the fort's overhang over our land boundary, arriving at the conclusion that the project would be too hard on the elm, and that the shifted fort would be destabilized.  Moreover, we'd had our eyes opened to post hoc City review of our project plans as a cynical effort to fool and pressure us to alter or destroy a legal structure authorized by a pre-existing permit.  On principle and for practical reasons, litigation was preferable to surrender.   

The author of the tear-down petition, neighbor Loraine Heckenberg, argued that because the tree house clashes with its surroundings architecturally, it should be destroyed.  The petition read "The incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood and therefore antithetical to the historic nature and existing streetscape."  In supporting documents, made public by ANC 6B, neighbors expressed outrage that the kids fort would attract vagrants, prove unsafe, depress alley property values and tourism, irreparably damage the host tree (which we own), fall into disrepair, and greatly compromise their privacy.  But none of this happened, helping explain why the neighbors' campaign to destroy the fort petered out after about a year. 

The backlash against what Slate Magazine's Norah Caplan-Bricker dubbed "DC Treehouse-gate" suggests that the public at large was not swayed by the argument that a permitted play fort off a Capitol Hill back alley should have been destroyed.  Supporters have come forward to help us in various ways.  The elm has been pruned by a tree care company without charge.  Backers have included kids offering allowance money and Capitol Hill realtors who like showing the castle-themed fort to clients with little kids.  

In late 2015, a DDOT inspector found dozens of large potted plants alley residents had been keeping in public space for many years.  DDOT forced the removal of the planters, a development for which neighbors blamed us.  Their spokesman complained to the Post that the fort "encroaches on" and "overwhelms" the public space...."  Fortunately, alley tensions have eased considerably over time.  None of the signers of the tear-down petition has continued to agitate to see the tree house removed in recent years, and several of the most ardent hostile neighbors have moved away from Archibald Walk.

We stayed in litigation for years to protest how we did just what the City required of us to build a legal tree house.  However, DDOT moved the legal goal posts on us as a result of internal dysfunction and administrative overreach.  An arbitrary project screening system also set the stage for litigation.  A paternalistic ANC 6B had no business informing us that we should submit to City review to defend a closed permit, thereby abetting an unlawful permit revocation.  Why not?  Because DC Code 1-309.10(a), spelling out ANC powers, states that the commissions “may advise…with respect to all proposed matters of DC government policy…” Completed construction projects authorized by closed permits cannot be described as "proposed matters."  If an ANC has an issue with a project covered by a building authorization the City hasn't lawfully revoked, the commissioners' quarrel is with the issuing agency, not the homeowner. 

The City's permitting games to demolish a legal kids fort have been enabled by a failed regulatory process in a jurisdiction supporting a byzantine construction permitting scheme.  The District's poorly explained and discretionary system for issuing and withdrawing ordinary homeowners' building authorizations set the stage for litigation in this case.  The arrangement is particularly problematic for building projects overlapping public space and in the DC Historic Districts, where ANC project review is required.  Thus, your homeowner is predisposed to have real difficulty defending rights under permits covering small projects, e.g. sheds, dog houses, fences, and play forts. 

This narrative not only chronicles the evolution of a knock-down neighborhood fight over a tree house, it proposes measures the City could take to prevent history from repeating itself when a family sets out to build a backyard play space.  See Castle Paper Trail, Proposed Tree House Rules.  The conflict hasn't been as much about a kids fort as lack of accountability to the public on the part of the DC permitting agencies.  The story also encapsulates an urban community's struggle to balance the needs and interests of the old guard with those of the droves of young families putting down roots in neighborhoods.  What else could explain why a kids fort a stone's throw from the Capitol Dome attracted so much media attention?  The story not only appeared in the WaPo, it aired on four local TV stations in January 2016: NBC-4,CBS-7, ABC-9 and Fox-5.  That year, NBC affiliates broadcast footage of the castle from coast to coast.

Creating a Process for Permitting Kids Forts in the DC Historic Districts - It's 2022 and It's Time:

Not only did we preserve the tree house until our girls will grow out of it, we'd like to see clear play fort-building rules enacted in DC. To this end, in 2016, we petitioned the directors of DCRA, DDOT and the Historic Preservation Office for rule-making on tree house building.  See our petition, ignored by the agencies, here.  The rescue operation has been an opportunity to raise awareness that there is no niche in the DCMR for kids forts.  DC categorizes tree houses as non-permitted "playground equipment" or "accessory sheds," overly broad categorizations creating permitting confusion over arboreal play spaces. 

Our family's committment to preserving Archibald Walk, the banged-up historic alley the tree house overlooks, was made clear back in 2011, when we succesfully lobbied DDOT to repave its badly degraded surface. The repaving project improved alley conditions fairly dramatically, particularly drainage.  The alley was generally occupied by a large swarm of insects in warm weather before repaving. 

Without specific rules related to play or tree house-building in DC, unlike in many other US cities, the door is left open to permitting adhocery.  More than one permitting official took the position that the fort's design broke none of the tree space rules for owners of adjoining lots, spelled out in DCMR Rule 24-109.3.  The permit even references "the property owner's street box."  In 2017, the rule was amended to read that a "structure" cannot overhang a tree space without a permit, a reaction to the tree house war.  With the amended rule, the law has been updated, meaning that no DC homeowner could build another such structure legally.  Thus, no dangerous precedent for tree house-building in the District was set when DDOT finally opted to leave this kids fort alone.

It Takes a Tree House to Call Attention to Construction Permitting Abuses Targeting Ordinary District Homeowners:

We went to court to defend rights granted by a permit DDOT came to regret issuing.  Agency officials opted to harness a bogus retroactive "review" of the authorization to tear it up. This type of casual permitting malfeasance, targetting ordinary homeowners who build small projects and probably can't fight back, is seldom challenged in the District. 

DDOT's "review" was government gone awry: the PSC Chair declared the tree house illegal to the WaPo in advance of the specious hearing, without even the pretense of impartiality.  Afterward, media attention brought us advice from real estate professionals wise to City permitting games.  Architects and contractors reached out, urging us to challenge DDOT's bad faith, because, under DC law, a permit like our is a closed chapter, absent a legal revocation process.   

Archibald Walk SE on Hill Walking Tours:

Come find the tree house!  The quirky castle has become something of a Hill landmark since the 2016 media blitz.  We first opened the fort to the public on Mother's Day Weekend 2016, during the Capitol Hill Restoration Society House & Garden Tour.  We invited tour-goers to visit our patio and fort, prompting several hundred tour ticket holders to stop by.

The guided Capitol Hill Food Tour, and the "Barrack's Row Tour of Duty" walk, still bring tourists by the tree house.  The authors of the tree house tear-down petition argued that the struture "impairs the public use and enjoyment of this space...and the enjoyment of neighborhood tours which transit Archibald Walk" with the fort "disrupting the integrity and visual beauty of the alleyway."  Their view has not been universally shared.  Guides will tell you that visitors sometimes ask to be shown the sweet tree house they saw on TV news, or read about in the Post.  Tourists occasionally come by, snap pictures and call out encouragement to kids to "Defend the castle!"  

Visiting the Tree House - Neighborhood Children Welcome at Community Open Houses

Before the Covid19 pandemic, were were opening the castle to local families once or twice a year.  Look for announcements of future open houses on the Next Door Eastern Market, MOTH (Mom's on the Hill) and Brent Neighbors listservs. Having trouble finding the tree house?  Try searching for "East Archibald Walk SE" on Google Maps.  If you don't plug the "East" into your GPS, you may not be directed to one of the entrances to the Walk off F St. Terrace SE, the main alley (paved in gray pavers) behind Christ Church on G St.  F St. Terrace runs north to south between E and G while Archibald walk loops off in the direction of 7th St. in the middle of the Terrace.  A visit to the Walk makes for a nice detour from Eastern Market on a weekend, less than a five-minute walk from the vendor's stalls in the market building heading south down 7th St.  With the market at your back, cross over Pennsylvania Ave. SE on 7th St, pass the red brick DC Northeast Library on your right and then cross over E St. SE.  Turn right and E and walk toward 6th St. until you find the entrance to F St. Terrace.  Walk 50 yards down the Terrace, then turn left into Archibald Walk SE.

Parting Thoughts on the Future of DC Tree Houses:

Going forward, the construction of tree houses should be regulated in the District, but in a way that encourages families to build them responsibly to promote outdoor play.  In a society where most urban youth spend too much time inside, the City should not be in the business of encouraging sedentary lifestyles for local children by making backyard kids forts difficult to build, and even harder to preserve.  

Discouraging homeowners in the DC Historic Districts from tree house building is short-sighted in a city with many large old trees in residential neighborhoods.  The unlawful revocation of building permits is another losing strategy in a municipality that has long struggled to rein in abuse of authority and dysfunction on the part of its administrative agencies, dampening statehood prospects. 

Homeowners in the District have a right to know exactly what they are, and aren't, allowed to build, no matter how large or small a construction project might be.   


July 2015:  Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, longtime Hill residents, ask permiting officials which authorizations will be required to build a kids fort at their Archibald Walk SE property.  The proposed tree house would project slightly over the tree space abutting their lot off an historic pedestrian walkway/back alley.  The creative design would enable the builders to use a wooden fence with posts laid in concrete as supports, minimizing the drilling of 18-inch lag bolts into an old American elm.  They learn that there is no reference to play forts or tree houses in the DC Municipal Regulations (DCMR) or Historic Preservation Rules.  They show officials plans and are told that DC does not permit structures with footprints of less than 50 SQF. 

August-September 2015:  The tree house is built for the two preschool-age Yee girls, by relatives and family friends.  Immediate neighbors are left courtesy notes telling them that a non-permitted fort will go up in the backyard elm tree, whose branches extend over alley space.  None react.  The 7' x 4' fort cannot be viewed from a street.  

October-November 2015:  A neighbor complains to DDOT that the fort was built in a public tree, and constitutes a public nuisance (both untrue).  A public space management inspector visits the alley and directs the parents to apply for a construction permit for the tree house to extend 20 inches into public air space over mulch.  The parents do as instructed right away, quickly securing the permit.  The DDOT City-wide permitting manager chooses the type and length of the authorization, which closes out on Nov. 20th.  This is the parents' first public space permit.

December 2015-January 2016 A dozen alley neighbors and supporters sign a tear-down petition addressed to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B.  The ANC reviews a permit "renewal" application the parents did not submit for a "proposed tree house" that's stood for months.  The "renewal" is of a "balcony construction" permit under a Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) code.  This is clearly a permanent permit, vs. a limited-duration "public space rental" permit, e.g. for a street party or temporary parking. The parents had not been instructed to submit to City review before being issued their permit, whose language does not state "temporary," or specify that the authorization would need to be renewed.  Neither does the fine print state that the parents would need to apply for an applicable 2nd permit.  

A DDOT official goes into Ellen's permitting account to apply for the "renewal," unbeknown to her, and changes her password.  He memorializes his hacking in an email.  In October 2017, the parents will lodge a complaint with the FBI Internet Crimes Center.  The PSC denies the "renewal application," DDOT's crude attempt to take an administrative shortcut to revoking a building permit after a group of neighbors had complained about the tree house. No permit revocation documents are ever served.  At public hearings, ANC 6B commissioners and senior DDOT officials dodge Bing's questions as to why the original closed-out permit is not being respected.

February 2016-November 2017:  The parents appeal the "permit application renewal" denial to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) court and, later, to the DC Court of Appeals.  DDOT ignores Bing's requests for clarification of the status of the original permit, which the agency now refuses to recognize.  DDOT fines the parents $8,000 for not "abating" the tree house from public space, with all six Notices of Violation served in the wrong homeowner's name, to a non-existant "Mr. Lee" vs. a "Mr. Bing Yee" (because all East Asian immigrants must be, er, "Lees," like Kung Fu fighter Bruce Lee...?).  The US Post Office will not release the notices of violation to Bing.

November 2017-January 2018:  DDOT refuses court mediation at OAH, even though the lead judge has lined up a mediator, and deemed the tree house matter "small."  The Office of the Attorney General of DC (OAG) represents DDOT.  After two years of being on the receiving end of abusive administrative errors and shenanigans in public space permitting, Bing, a lawyer but not a civil litigator with trial experience, and Ellen countersue DDOT in the US District Court of the District of Columbia (Federal court) to challenge the fines.  They also sue the two DDOT officials most involved in permitting at the agency's Public Space Regulation Division.  

The parents represent themselves in the first complaint they file in any court of law.  The case is brought under the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and other causes of action right before the statute of limitations on various causes of action is to expire in early 2018.  The parents' goal is simply to keep the tree house until their daughters have outgrown it.   Alternatively, they would like fair compensation from the City for tearing the play fort down, to build a replacement entirely on their lot.

February 2018:  DDOT/OAG argues that the parents' lawsuit is "not ripe" in Federal Court, after having asserted that the case "is moot" at the lower court, OAH.  The DC Court of Appeals dismisses the District's motion to throw out the appeal and refers the case to mediation.  OAG lawyers begin to insist that there was never a "permit renewal process."  They now claim that the parents actually applied for a 2nd permit, a mythical but mandatory "public space occupancy permit for balcony construction," denied by the PSC.  Evaluate DDOT's flip-flopping legal arguments at Castle Paper Trail.  DDOT is forced to withdraw $8,000 in fines because none was served in a correct name.

March-April 2018:  The Federal Court case is assigned to Amy Berman Jackson, the judge hearing the DC Mueller probe cases.  DDOT/OAG files a motion to get the parents' lawsuit dismissed.  Mediation fails at the DC Court of Appeals, after a 6-hour session to which the District sends 5 senior staff, including several attorneys.  DDOT refuses to agree to let the tree house alone until the Yee girls are done with elementary school.  

September 27th, 2018:  The DC Court of Appeals hears oral arguments regarding vacating a DDOT stop-work-order that was likely illegal. The panel moots the apellate case.  The Federal case, however, continues, on appeal by early 2020.  

June-October 2020:  The treehouse case goes to mediation at the US States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  The parties ask the Court to remove the case from the docket and the court concurs.  END OF TIMELINE 

To urban tree houses as places of joy and discovery!

Friends of the CH Tree House

Photos courtesy of and

Thanks for stopping by.  Capitol Hill visitors and denizens who haven't seen the tree house, we encouage you to come find it and draw your own conclusions.