Local News

Raleigh Family Threatened With Loss Of Home Over Tree House

Posted July 31, 2003 4:22 a.m. EDT

— What you put in your back yard is your business right? Not necessarily. One Wake County family could lose their home because their neighbors do not like what they built on the property.

This problem involves a neighborhood association. Lots of neighborhoods have them.

The associations are kind of little democracies. Neighborhood rules are enforced by board members who are elected by the neighborhood.

As Scott and Alison Watson found out, the power of the boards can reach right into a homeowners own back yard. Their house could be foreclosed on because of their board's decision.

Mitchell Watson's parents built him a tree house last Christmas.

"I thought it was amazing," the 7-year-old said.

The tree house is complete with siding that matches the real house, shingles, windows -- even window boxes.

"He was stunned," Watson said. "He brought all of his friends from the neighborhood over as it was being built and said, 'Look, look! It's my own tree house.'"

Three months later, the Watsons received a letter from their Durant Trace Homeowners Association, formerly known as Heathrow. The letter stated their tree house is "not allowed" and "must be removed."

"We were completely shocked," Watson said.

The Watsons admit they did not ask the association for approval before building the tree house. Alison Watson said she did call the management company, Pindell-Wilson, to find out how to get it approved.

"He told me, 'Oh, the board's not going to approve a tree house under any circumstances. It's just an eyesore. You're gonna have to take it down.'" she said.

Soon after, the association sent a letter threatening fines, liens -- even foreclosure if they do not take it down.

"It's absolutely absurd," Alison Watson said.

The problem is that the neighborhood covenants clearly give its board of directors "sole discretion" for approval of any outside structures.

"I would tell you most people see covenants for the first time at the closing," real estate attorney Barry Mann said.

Mann said most home buyers do not realize how much power boards can have.

"You better get approval for anything you do on that property before you do it," he said.

Mann said boards are supposed to be consistent.

"They can't pick and choose the people or the actions they want to enforce," he said.

That is what the Watsons believe their board is doing. They point to a tree house down the street, sheds and many wooden play sets -- some with pretty extravagant construction.

Board president Kevin White told Five On Your Side he "wouldn't want [the treehouse] next to him" and the board "already made its decision." As for the other structures, White would not say whether they were approved.

"I don't get why they want to take it away from me," Mitchell Watson said. "Nobody can get harmed in it. All it can do to you is give you a splinter."

Last month, the association started fining the Watsons $50 a week for the tree house.

If the structure is down by August 1, the association will drop the fine. If it is not down by September 1, the board said lien and foreclosure proceedings will begin.

As of Wednesday, the Watsons have not decided what they will do.