Dooley Real Estate

Application Angst
How many permits does it take to build a tree house?

by Paul Dooley

Years ago when our kids were young, their grandfather sent them an article from Yankee Magazine entitled “How to Build a Tree House for Under $100.” He was surely thinking of the one he and his brothers had built in a large dramatically forked maple back in Bloomington, Illinois. The idea of an arboreal hideout landed on fertile ground at our house. Soon the three young builders in the family were scouting promising trees and drawing plans. I watched with paternal pride as they hauled ladders and scrap lumber to the site and spent several weeks hammering climbing boards up to the first crotch, fastening joists to the trunk, creating a platform capable (for the most part) of supporting the three of them, then setting out to construct walls and a roof of sorts.

The result was a semi-enclosed, shed-like structure with windows and a trap door access hatch intended to keep out intruders, of which their were few aside from curious cats. I remember being asked by a neighbor who had had a run in or two with the Planning and Zoning Commission if I had a permit for the structure (I didn’t, nor had I thought to apply for one), but nothing came of his query. The tree house lasted, unused in later years, until the tree which supported it was cut down. The three builders went on to become a construction manager, a builder and municipal planner, and a financial analyst, so the experience may well have carried career benefits into adulthood. The cost, by the way, was well under Yankee Magazine’s touted one hundred bucks—achieved primarily by the savings realized from using their old man’s stored lumber, nails and roofing material.

The tree house came to mind the other day when I volunteered to help a friend who’s a weekender get the permits he needed to erect a small, unheated, storage shed on his property. What I remembered as being a fairly straightforward procedure has metastasized into a multi-departmental and increasingly expensive web of multiple application forms, duplication and delay. Here’s a summary of the application process so far: A zoning permit which basically establishes that the structure is a permitted use and that the setbacks from the property lines meet the regulations is required. The application fee is $110 for structures costing less than $2000 (the tree house qualified but almost nothing else you might contemplate will). If the project is going to run more than $2000, there’s an added fee of .1% of the total project cost. Since the zoning issues for an otherwise uncomplicated permitted use (setbacks and height) are exactly the same for a garden shed and a four-bedroom house, one wonders why the fee increases as the cost of the project does, unless it’s simply a means to enhance departmental revenue.

Not all applications for permitted uses, however, are so uncomplicated. If the proposed structure is located with in 200 feet of a designated wetlands (the so-called regulated area), a separate permit is needed from the Inland Wetlands Commission (forget building anything in the wetlands themselves). The purpose of this requirement is to insure that activities adjacent to wetlands (digging, filling, clearing) do not damage the wetlands themselves. Even a shed in the regulated area requires a wetlands permit—which must be obtained before the zoning permit can be issued. The wetlands application costs $100 and eight copies (one for each Commission member and alternate member) must be submitted. The Inland Wetlands Commission meets once a month and will routinely table applications until the next meeting, presumably to give the Commission the opportunity to inspect the site.

It gets more complicated yet if the proposed shed is in the Horizon Line Conservation District. The HLCD is a relatively new zone created to prevent the visual disruption of the visible horizons as seen from our roads and waterways. It’s a laudable goal. I remember driving across the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis several years ago and being offended by the roofs and cleared areas of new houses which made the far wooded ridge look like a smile with missing teeth. Yet laudable goals can be tough to administer. In the case of the HLCD, the boundaries of the District had to be mapped to determine whether or not an activity within it has the potential to impair the natural horizon. The mapping is necessarily two-dimensional, while determination of whether or not the proposed use or structure will compromise the view has to be a three dimensional analysis. It’s ironic that the first Horizon Line permit issued in Kent was for a swimming pool flush to the ground. If your property happens to be in the HLCD, add another $35 to your application fee.

Finally, the Torrington Area Health District gets involved, requiring an additional application ($35 for the subject shed, $55 for a house). TAHD must determine that the structure either has adequate soils for a primary and reserve septic system or, in the case of the shed, does not compromise the existing system. And of course, once the wetlands, TAHD and zoning permits are issued, a building permit must be obtained from the Building Inspector.

The total cost of the land use permits needed for my friend’s shed is approximately $300, and counting. So much for Yankee Magazine’s $100 tree house.