Bureaucracy and a big Sullivan’s Island tree house

Hal Coste measures the height of the tree house he built in his Sullivan's Island backyard. (Wade Spees/Staff)

It’s still legal to have fun on Sullivan’s Island.

But some island kids are getting a decidedly unfunny lesson in local bureaucracy thanks to a strict interpretation of town zoning laws preventing their grandfather from finishing work on a tree house.

The controversy started in 2014 when town officials ordered Hal Coste to halt construction on a tree house since he lacked necessary permits.

In the process of applying for those permits, Mr. Coste was told that the tree house would need a substantial zoning variation since its height exceeded that allowable for so-called “accessory structures.”

Of course, the town has no ordinances specifically dealing with tree houses, so the designation as an accessory structure seems an arbitrary one. The category includes work sheds, garages and greenhouses.

In the ensuing months, Mr. Coste filed a civil lawsuit appealing the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision to disallow the structure, and has pressured Town Council to develop a new ordinance specific to tree houses. He has since continued to work on the tree house, despite a stop work order from the town.

But the BZA refuses to back down. Zoning officials issued a $1,040 fine in July for violating the stop work order, which Mr. Coste will contest in municipal court next month.

Meanwhile, his grandkids are growing up, and a resolution to the issue could still be a long way off.

Mr. Coste points out that there are four other tree houses on the island that haven’t been wrapped up in red tape.

Maybe that’s because the 92-square-foot tree house already partially constructed in Mr. Coste’s backyard has some amenities that most run-of-the-mill tree houses might not. It features large windows and a wrap-around porch and it will be wired for electricity when completed.

Indeed, the tree house could make a pretty comfortable guest house or AirBnB rental. Of course, that would violate another part of the island’s zoning code.

Sullivan’s Island zoning laws and height ordinances were created to address concerns like overdevelopment, towering front beach mansions and other issues that could diminish the town’s quality of the life. Their effectiveness depends on predictable, fair enforcement.

But a tree house?

Maybe the island does need an ordinance to resolve this and future tree house contretemps.

After all, the elevated structures could provide safe haven from the coyotes that have declared squatters’ rights there.