Tree house tests limits of Sullivan’s Island zoning laws

Hal Coste measures the height of the tree house he built in his Sullivan’s Island backyard.

SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — Hal Coste hopes to finish a tree house for his grandkids, but so far the town won’t let him. In fact, the project may have to come down, he said.

He faces a possible $1,040 fine at an Aug. 3 municipal court hearing after being charged with violating a town order to stop work on the play house that he has been building in a backyard pecan tree.

The tree house is an “accessory structure,” zoning officials said, which by law can be up to 15-feet high. The 96-square-foot structure is 14 feet from floor to roof but the town measures height from the ground, which means the tree house is officially 30 feet tall because it is 16 feet from the ground to the floor of the tree house.

In addition to the height issue, Coste didn’t get a building permit for the work, the town said.

The Board of Zoning Appeals turned down Coste when it ruled his situation was not a hardship. In response, Coste, who is a licensed building contractor and carpenter, filed suit to overturn the BZA ruling. He argues that the pecan tree is the only suitable place for the tree house. And he notes there is nothing in the zoning ordinance that is specific to tree houses.

Another resident has sued to overturn a BZA decision. Paul Boehm, who is broker-in-charge at East Islands Real Estate, took the board to court and won a ruling that the town has appealed. Like Coste, Boehm’s case concerns the town’s application of its rules for an accessory structure.

Boehm wants to raise the eight-foot ceiling on the Goldbug Avenue apartment he has rented out for more than decade. He also wants to extend the roof over an exterior staircase and use an adjoining slat house roof as an apartment deck. The BZA has turned him down because it says the improvements are not allowed for an accessory building.

Boehm’s property had two buildings on it, including a house that Boehm passed on to his son. Judge Markley Dennis Jr. ruled in Boehm’s favor that the garage apartment is a second principal building, not an accessory structure, and he remanded the matter to the BZA for reconsideration in a manner consistent with his ruling.

BZA Chairwoman Elizabeth Tezza declined comment. John Linton, an attorney for a firm representing the town, said he could not speak about ongoing litigation.

Mayor Pat O’Neil said that in both cases the town zoning code is at stake.

“The town maintains that it is a violation of the zoning ordinance. If you permit violations it wrecks or destroys the zoning ordinance. In general, we always think that it’s very important to the town to defend its zoning ordinance,” O’Neil said.

In his April ruling, Dennis described the BZA decision in Boehm’s case as “arbitrary, capricious, not based on the law, and an abuse of discretion.” He said, “The BZA committed clear error of law in its application of the Town’s Zoning Ordinance.”

Boehm said that in the course of the dispute a zoning officer required him to remove furniture from the adjoining slat house roof that had been used as an apartment deck for 14 years. He wants to raise the eight-foot-tall ceiling by two feet and hang beams on it.

“Is this or isn’t it a dwelling? If it’s a dwelling then I’m allowed to have these things. It’s a crazy, absurd argument,” Boehm said.

Other islanders have been allowed to perform the same sort of work on their property, Boehm said.

Coste hopes that the new town administration will be more receptive to his situation. In May, four newcomers were elected to the seven-member Council.

If it is finished, the tree house will have windows and electricity. A stairway connects the tree house to the backyard deck of Coste’s house. He took the roof off the tree house thinking that might be a way around his problems with the town. “It does not have a roof on it so it is not an accessory structure,” he said.

But the town didn’t see it that way and he received a ticket from zoning officials on July 1.

In his suit, Coste says that the BZA decision was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion. He notes that the island Design Review Board approved the tree house for appropriateness of appearance.

Coste, a resident of Station 19 Street, has said that he invested $4,000 in the tree house which is 90 percent done. He could hire a crane to take it out of the tree but that would be equally if not more expensive, he said.

For now, he is focused on his upcoming court date. He hopes to work out a deal with the town, a sort of quid-pro-quo, in which he is allowed to have his tree house in exchange for historic artifacts he would donate for the new Town Hall now under construction.

“My theory was there was no law against a tree house,” he said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or Twitter.com/prentissfindlay.