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OUTDOORS : Life at the Top : Treehouses Can Be Plain or Fancy; What They Require Is Sense of Fun and Eye for Safety

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fans of the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip understand how important a tree house can be to a kid. For one thing, it’s the place where young Calvin and his imaginary tiger pal hatch plans to drop water bombs on poor, unsuspecting Susie.

From literature to Hollywood movies, any self-respecting kid with a tree seems to build some sort of shelter in its branches.

But, as well as the idea of kids and treehouses seem to go together, Orange County neighborhoods seem to have an abundance of kids and very few treehouses.

At least part of the lack can be laid to a shortage of decent-sized trees worthy of house building. Much of the county is made up of new communities where there were few trees to begin with or where they were razed to make way for housing developments.

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Zoning laws and regulations adopted by home associations also work to keep tree dwellings to a minimum. Many new neighborhoods in the county have restrictions about everything from house color to jungle-gym size. These are not places that usually tolerate treehouses.

Still, there are treehouses perched here and there. They range from a weathered model in a Costa Mesa back yard to the concrete-rooted one at Disneyland, from a controversially placed one in Laguna Beach to one comfortably tucked into in a back-yard pine in Anaheim that’s a favorite of children in the neighborhood.

Zoning departments in many Orange County cities have a pretty relaxed attitude about treehouses.

“We don’t really regulate them at all,” said Roger Garry, code enforcement officer for Brea. “As long as it’s under 120 square feet. If it’s out in the front-yard area, we check to see if it’s compatible with zoning aspects, but we’ve never really had a problem with them.”

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Anaheim, Placentia, Irvine, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa have similar policies regarding treehouses: As long as they are less than one story high (anywhere from six to eight feet, depending on the city) and under 120 square feet and comply with the city’s setback laws, they are not required to have building permits.

“We don’t really get very involved with treehouses,” said Mary Beth Ormsby, an associate planner for Huntington Beach. “The only time we’d get involved is if there was a complaint, and then we’d check it out.”

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For the person considering building a treehouse, consultation with neighbors and a check with the city zoning department are advised before construction. It can prevent problems later.

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There are a lot of plans for building on-ground playhouses, but not for treehouses. Each one needs to be custom-built to the tree and interests of the kids who will be using it.

It’s very important to chose a sturdy tree--one that will be able to stand up to the stress of construction and climbing. It’s not necessary for a treehouse to be very high off the ground. Even with a safe design, falls can happen.

Construction should be sturdy and the climb to and from should be simple. Additional safety issues to keep in mind are solid bracing, side rails or walls to prevent falls and a splinter-free finish. After a treehouse is built, it should be inspected regularly to make sure it remains safe. Watch kids at play in it to see if there are ways to make it safer. Sometimes one more board can help prevent an accident.

While plans can become grand, it’s good to remember that simple materials and design are often just as attractive to a child as complex ones: A treehouse is built most of all in the imagination.

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From the simple to the grand, here is how four of Orange County’s treehouses have fared:

Old Favorite

In an unincorporated area near Costa Mesa, high in a eucalyptus, sits a treehouse that once must have been a grand little playhouse but now has faded green paint and no glass in its windows.

Faded or not, the more than 20-year-old treehouse is still bringing joy to kids.

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The treehouse sits in the back yard of Gary Elder, who doesn’t really need a treehouse but was pleased to have it there when he bought the property six years ago.

“I’m not married and don’t have any kids,” he said. He had a carpenter look the house over and make sure it was still sound. “I had the old carpet and glass removed for safety reasons,” said Elder. “My nephews and friends’ kids like playing up there.”

The treehouse has been a part of the neighborhood for so long that at least some consider it a treasure. One neighbor, who has a great view of the treehouse from her back yard, says that to her it’s as good as an ocean view.

“It’s just an old, funky thing, not all new or styled out. It’s like a work of art,” Lynette Vieira said.

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Modern Amenities

In the back yard of the Clark family home in Anaheim is a treehouse designed by Tom Sendro for his two granddaughters. With the help of son-in-law Doug, Sendro built it in the branching trunk of a back-yard pine.

The treehouse is used mostly by 7 1/2-year-old Allison (her younger sister, Heather, 2, is too little to climb up without adult accompaniment). “The house is about 10 1/2 feet off the ground,” said the girls’ mom, Julia Clark.

Before the treehouse went up two years ago, the Clarks asked their neighbors whether they would object; no one did.

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The Clarks made sure the treehouse was attractive. It’s green to blend in with the tree.

“It doesn’t look like some child made it out of leftover lumber,” Clark said. “It’s not an eyesore. It looks real cute.”

The treehouse has a balcony, shuttered windows and staircase with handrail. The first few steps of the staircase are covered with a removable plastic shield that prevents Heather from climbing up but is easily managed by Allison and her friends. There is also a pulley system so that no child has to climb up the stairs with arms full of toys. The pulley also makes it easier to send up snacks.

Inside there are a child-size table, four chairs and chalkboards. Despite a yard full of children’s attractions, such as a tetherball court and swimming pool, the treehouse remains the most popular among kids.

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“We always ask kids that come over to play what they like the best. Always it’s the treehouse,” Clark said.

Battle Ground

In Laguna Beach, complaints from a neighbor resulted in the city’s ordering the removal of a back-yard treehouse earlier this year.

The structure had been built by the Castillo family as a birthday gift for son Andrew. The 10-foot-by-5-foot treehouse sports a balcony and a skylight and cost $3,200 to build.

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A neighbor who lives uphill from the Castillos complained to the city that the treehouse--snuggled between two eucalyptus trees and secured by ropes--blocks his ocean view and allows for a clear view onto his property.

The city’s Design Review Board decided in February that the treehouse should be moved to a location that would neither annoy neighbors nor require a zoning variance.

At last report, the treehouse was still in place--with the Castillos and the city mulling their next moves.

Concrete Fantasy

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The grandest of treehouses may well be the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse at Disneyland. Standing 60 feet tall since the park opened, the treehouse has been visited by 300 million people, according to a Disneyland spokesman.

Closed in February for some refurbishing and remodeling, the treehouse was reopened in March.

Unlike your neighborhood variety of treehouse, the Disney structure boasts turn-of-the-century antiques, including an organ, a ship’s light and a barometer. It sleeps six and has its own water supply via a bamboo waterwheel.

How can a tree support such grandeur? Ah, well, the Disneyland tree is made of 150 tons of concrete, six tons of reinforced steel and has more than 300,000 hand-painted leaves for that natural effect.

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And unlike most run-of-the-mill trees, this one has concrete roots that reach 42 feet into the ground.


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