Ann Arbor fights to ax family's tree house plans
Ann Arbor — When Tamar Boyadjian contacted the city about building a tree house last year, she estimated the cost at $500.
A year later, the price tag is $30,000 and growing.
She never imagined needing zoning, building and electrical permits, being in and out of court, hiring a structural engineer, two architects and three attorneys, spending 1,500 hours to build, tear down and rebuild the still-unfinished structure.
Boyadjian, an assistant professor of medieval literature at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the city over the legality of the structure.
The combatants are due back Nov. 2 in 15th District Court in Ann Arbor.
“This has blown up to a whole issue,” Boyadjian said. “It’s about a tree house in my back yard that you can’t even see from the street.”
How did something dealing with child’s play become so complicated? Each side blames the other.
The city of Ann Arbor said Boyadjian continually dragged her feet, missed deadlines and failed to follow city rules.
Boyadjian said the city was overly strict, set unrealistic deadlines and, when constantly challenged by the homeowner, became punitive.
Whoever is at fault, the relationship has turned uncommonly combative.
When Boyadjian changed plans for the tree house in April, the city required six inspections and imposed 16 conditions on the new work, and then rejected the next four sets of revised plans, according to city records.
When she missed a deadline the same month, a city attorney tried to have her thrown into jail until the work was done.
City officials won’t even call it a tree house. In city and legal documents, they refer to it as an accessory structure, which doesn’t sound nearly as fun or inviting.
Kristin Larcom, the assistant city attorney who sought to have Boyadjian locked up, declined to discuss the matter. In brief remarks, she said the city bore no ill will toward Boyadjian and her fiancé, Greg Douglas.
“Who they are is completely irrelevant,” she said. “This is purely a legal matter.”
Despite the deepening money pit, Boyadjian and Douglas vow to finish the structure no matter what.
“Over my dead body will they get my treehouse from me,” said Douglas, a builder. “They can pry it from my cold dead hands.”
Roots of controversy
The imbroglio began with a misunderstanding.
When Daniel, the youngest of Boyadjian’s two children, asked for a tree house, Douglas said he would build one.
He said he called the city to see if he needed a permit and was told there was no such thing as a tree house permit.
Douglas and a friend began building it in July 2017. It was no ordinary tree house.
“I knew I was going to build something spectacular,” Douglas said. “Maybe it’s my dream tree house.”
The 9-by-12-foot tree house, which is 9 feet above the ground, has a door, glass windows, watertight roof and walls, and electrical outlets.
It continues beyond the oak to comprise a 100-square-foot balcony with railing and a winding staircase. Besides the tree, it’s supported by 12 steel and wood posts.
Douglas had been working on the structure for a month when he was contacted by the city, which had received complaints from neighbors about it
The tree house, which sat in the corner of the back yard, hovered over the fence, allowing anyone in the structure to peer into the neighbors’ yards.
Al Lauzon, who lives behind Douglas and Boyadjian, declined to discuss the matter.
“We kinda decided to stay out of it,” Lauzon said about himself and his wife. “The whole thing is getting bigger than I ever thought it would.”
This wasn’t the first time neighbors have complained about Douglas and Boyadjian.
Over the years, they’ve told the city the couple play music too loud, failed to cut their grass and left their trash cans out, resulting in four fines since 2015, according to city records.
Ann Arbor serves notice
When the city came to Douglas’ and Boyadjian’s home in August 2017, it didn’t see a tree house. It saw something more akin to an accessory structure, such as a shed, garage or gazebo.
The couple received a notice for failing to obtain a zoning permit and for building the structure within 3 feet of the property lines of the neighbors behind and beside them, according to city records.
They were given 30 days to move the tree house. In October 2017, they got a second notice. In November, they received a citation.
The city also noted the deck and stairs had been built without a building permit and issued a ticket for those as well.
In April, District Judge Karen Valvo fined the couple $500 for the zoning code violation and $750 for the building code one. She gave them until the end of the month to bring the project up to code.
When they failed to do so, Valvo found them in contempt and fined them $5,000, suspending the levy as she extended the deadline to Aug. 31. When the work still wasn’t done, she ordered them to pay the fine.
But the couple said the city made it impossible for them to meet the Aug. 31 deadline.
Douglas said he couldn’t work on the structure until the city approved the plans and the city didn’t do so until Aug. 1.
“The city took 10 of the 12 weeks to approve the permit,” he said. “There’s no way I could have finished the work in two weeks.”
The city had finally approved the original plans in March only to have Douglas and Boyadjian change the plans because a fire pit was in the way of the proposed stairway.
When the city received the new plans in April, it imposed 16 conditions on the work and, for the next three months, rejected four sets of revised plans, according to city records.
One condition, that the structure’s drywall exterior be fire-resistant, isn’t required by city ordinance, said the couple’s architect, Gio Lavigne of Birmingham.
Another condition, that an engineer verify the soil can support the posts holding the tree house, is rarely requested by other cities, Lavigne said.
“It just seems like overkill,” he said about all of the requirements. “They’re overreaching. I don’t know why.”
Lavigne said he never experienced such scrutiny during decades of designing mansions, medical clinics or office buildings. This is his first project in Ann Arbor, and his first tree house.
He wondered if city officials were taking their struggles with the homeowners personally.
“Building officials normally work these things out,” Lavigne said. “I never went to court for a real building let alone a tree house.”
Mike Lemieux, the city building inspector who worked on the project, didn’t respond to emails or phone calls asking for comment.
Homeowners don't relent
Despite the growing fines, Douglas and Boyadjian have no intention of backing down.
After their latest court loss, when Valvo ordered them to pay the $5,000 fine in September, they’ve hired a new attorney.
Their former lawyer, Julia Gilbert, withdrew from the case, telling the judge there was a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship and the couple no longer wants her. Gilbert declined to be interviewed.
The couple also are on their second architect.
The first, Tim Nichols of Southfield, was replaced in April. Boyadjian said he quit because he was frustrated with his dealings with the city.
Contacted by The Detroit News, Nichols said he left because he was finished with the work. Asked about Boyadjian’s remark, he declined to comment.
“I don’t want to embarrass Tamar. She’s a lovely person,” Nichols said.
With the Nov. 2 court hearing and possibly more fines looming, Boyadjian and Gregory still need to pass a flurry of city inspections.
Meanwhile, relations with the neighbors remain raw.
Gregory moved a set of drums into the tree house for the kids to play. He joked he may add more.
Lauzon, the neighbor, has a for-sale sign in his front yard. The name of the real estate agency: Tree House Realty.