Town vs. treehouse

Hal Coste, a licensed contractor, began building a tree house for his grandchildren in his backyard on Sullivan's Island until the town placed a stop work order on the playhouse because he had not obtained a permit for it.

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND - Hal Coste was almost finished building a treehouse for his two grandkids when the town made him stop work on it.

"A treehouse. Give me a break," he said.

Coste had invested $4,000 in the structure, which was 90 percent done. The town told him he had to quit the project because he had not obtained a building permit.

The treehouse sits 16 feet off the ground, is 96 square feet and sits on a 200 square-foot deck built in a pecan tree that survived Hurricane Hugo. Coste, a licensed building contractor, said the 14-foot-tall structure is safe and sound. A structural engineer and arborist agree, he said.

"I'm an old carpenter. This is rock solid," he said.

Coste has a petition bearing the signatures of nearly 60 island residents who support the treehouse.

"I'm not asking for special favors from the town. I just want them to leave me alone," he said.

A treehouse is basically a piece of playground equipment that should not be governed by the same rules as earthbound structures, Coste said.

He said there is no specific town law that prohibits it. He had pictures of five other treehouses on the island.

Coste said it would cost $4,000 to hire a crane to pluck the treehouse out of the tree and put it on the ground. He suggested a quid pro quo with the town under which the treehouse would be allowed in exchange for donating his island artifacts and photos to the new Town Hall that will soon be under construction.

The Board of Zoning Appeals ruled that Coste was not eligible for a zoning variance that would allow the treehouse because he had not demonstrated that the situation met the test for a hardship.

"Not being able to have a treehouse is not a hardship," said board Chairwoman Elizabeth Tezza.

Coste asked for a variance to allow the treehouse as an "accessory structure," which by law can be up to 15 feet tall. Measuring from the ground to the tip of the structure, the treehouse is 30 feet tall, which is a "100 percent variance," Tezza said.

Coste said that the situation is a hardship because the pecan tree where the treehouse is built is the only appropriate place for it on his property. The supporting tree limbs determine how far up the treehouse is placed, he said.

He has filed a suit in Charleston County Court of Common Pleas seeking a ruling that would overturn the decision and grant him the right to have the treehouse.

"I can't afford this lawsuit," he said.

A lawyer friend donated an hour of his time, Coste said.

Coste would have been required to remove the treehouse from the tree had he not filed the lawsuit, Tezza said.

The zoning appeals board voted 4-1 to deny the variance that would allow the treehouse with one board member abstaining and another recusing herself.

The ruling suggests that Town Council weigh whether the law should be changed for treehouses or whether they should continue to be considered accessory structures.

Coste, 67, is a lifelong island resident and a partially disabled Vietnam veteran.

He started building the treehouse last December. Work was halted in February. One of his grandchildren is 3 years old and the other is 18 months.

"It's been a year. If I can just get back before the BZA there's a possibility that they would change their minds," he said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.