06/13/18. JUNE UPDATE. Welcome to the tree house site. Families
with children ages 3-10 are invited to visit the tree house for the upcoming 3rd Annual Independence Day open house. The event follows the Capitol Hill Community Parade on 8th Street SE (two blocks east). The
parade starts on July 4th at 10:00. We will be serving cake, lemonade and ice cream by the tree house from 11:00-12:30. Join the fun on Archibald Walk!
The tree house case landed in the US District Court of the District of Columbia in January. The Washington Post Metro Section ran this report:
The story about
the Federal suit was scooped by the DC Urban Turf real estate blog. Their report emphasizes that the tree house builders are challenging DDOT's denial of due process in tree house permitting. https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/hacked-accounts-and-improper-notices-the-saga-of-the-capitol-hill-treehouse/13455
Tree House Case Timeline:
July 2015: Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, longtime Hill residents, ask DC permiting officials which building authorizations would be required to build a small
backyard tree house at Archibald Walk SE, several blocks south of Eastern Market. The proposed kids fort would jut a foot and a half into public air space over a tree box abutting an alley from which vehicles have been banned
for decades. The creative design would enable them to use a fence with posts laid in concrete as supports, minimizing the drilling of giant lag bolts into their century-old American elm tree. They discover that there is no
reference to tree houses or play forts in the DC Municipal Regulations (DCMR) or the Historic Preservation Rules. They show officials plan documents and are told that DC does not permit kids forts with footprints of less than
50 SQF (the tree house is 30 SQF).
August-September 2015: The homemade tree house is built for the Yee girls,
then ages 3 and 5. Immediate neighbors are left notes telling them that a non-permitted fort will go up in the family's tree. None react. The structure does not obstruct any form of travel and cannot be seen
from any street.
October-November 2015: One neighbor complains to the permitting agencies that the for tree house was built
in a public tree and constitutes a public nuisance (untrue). A senior DDOT inspector visits the alley and directs the parents to apply for a construction permit for the tree house to extend into public air space
over a tree space. The parents do as instructed right away, quickly securing the permit. A DDOT City-wide permitting manager chooses the permit type and length. The permit closes on Nov. 20th. The parents
are not real estate professionals and this is their first public space permit.
December 2015-January 2016:
A dozen neighbors living near the tree house sign a tear-down petition, addressed to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B. DC's preeminent zoning commission, the Public Space Commitee (PSC), then reviews a permit
"renewal" application DDOT submitted for a "proposed tree house" that has stood for months. The "renewal" is of a closed "balcony" construction permit under a Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) code, clearly in a different
category than a limited-duration public space rental permit, e.g. for a street festival or parking. No DC official had advised the parents that their permit was temporary, or that City review
was required, and nothing was put in writing. A DDOT official goes into Ellen's permitting account to apply for the "renewal," unbeknown to her, and changes her password. He memorializes the hacking in an email. Predictably,
the PSC denies the "renewal," the agency's crude attempt to take an administrative shortcut to revoking the permit. No permit revocation documents are ever served. At the hearing, the PSC Chair dodges Bing's questions about the
status of the original permit.
February 2016-November 2017: The parents appeal the PSC permit application "renewal" denial
at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) and the DC Court of Appeals. DDOT ignores the parents requests for clarification of the status of the original permit. The City fines the parents $8,000 for not "abating"
the tree house from public space, with the fines served in the wrong homeowner's name, a "Mr. Lee" vs. a "Mr. Yee." The notices are served via certified mail, meaning that post office staff will not release them to Bing. He's unaware
that he's being fined for nearly a year after the first notice is (improperly) served.
November 2017-January 2018:
DDOT refuses court mediation at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), even though the lead judge has lined up a mediator. The agency withdraws the fines, to re-serve them in the correct name. The Office of the DC Attorney
General begins representing DDOT, with a current Deputy AG working on the case. After more than two years of being on the receiving end of abusive administrative errors and permitting malfeasance threatening a homeowner's right
to due process under the 5th Amendment, Bing, a lawyer with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Securty but not a litigator, sues DDOT as a pro se litigant (representing himself). The suit is the first complaint he files in any court
of law. The case is brought in U.S. District Court under the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and other causes of action. Bing sues before the two-year statute of limitations on various causes of action is to expire,
with the goal of simply keeping the tree house for his girls. You can read the Federal complaint and Court of Appeals filings under the Castle Paper Trail header.
February 2018: The City argues that the Federal lawsuit is "not ripe," illogically, after having
argued that the case "is moot" at OAH. A 3-judge panel at the DC Court of Appeals dismisses the City's motion to throw out the appeal and refers the case to mediation.
March-April 2018: The City files a motion get the Federal case dismissed. Mediation fails at the Court of Appeals after the City
sends a team of five senior officials to a full day of mediation. The Federal case is assigned to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, the Obama appointee who is hearing the Manafort cases in the Mueller inquiry.
May 2018: Office of the Attorney General attorneys and the parents take turns filing
motions in the Federal suit. By now, seven different senior City attorneys have been assigned to the tree house case. None has been able to bring about the structure's "abatement from
public space" (destruction). The City's wasteful campaign to demolish a legal backyard child's fort, designed to dissuade other homeowners from challenging the permitting agencies, has already cost DC taxpayers tens of
thousands of dollars.
The parents have stayed in litigation to protest how they did just what the permiting agencies required of them to build the tree house,
but DDOT moved the goal posts on them several times due to internal agency dysfunction. The City's post-permitting crackdown on a child's backyard fort has been enabled by a failed regulatory process in a jurisdiction
without a legal framework for tree house-building and a byzantine permitting scheme. DDOT's poorly explained and highly discretionary permitting system sets up the homeowner to have great difficulty in defending construction rights.
This site not only considers the evolution of a knock-down local fight over a tree house, it proposes measures the City government could take to prevent history from repeating itself elsewhere. We point out that the struggle
hasn't really been over the future of a child's fort. Rather, it's about lack of accountability to the public on the part of the DC permitting agencies. The story is also about a fast-changing 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 tree house a stone's throw from the US Capitol Dome has attracted considerable
media attention? The WaPo has run four articles on the story, which aired on local TV stations--NBC-4,CBS-7, ABC-9 and Fox-5--in early 2016. NBC affiliates even
broadcast footage of the tree house from coast to coast. See Castle in the News for an annotated list of media links.