Father battles Fairfax County zoning laws for sons’ treehouse

Last spring, Mark W. Grapin promised his two sons that he would build them a treehouse in the maple tree beside their Fairfax County home before he shipped out to Iraq again with the Army National Guard.

But now that he has run afoul of county zoning laws, Grapin has given his sons a civics lesson, too.

Grapin spent about $1,400 in materials to build the treehouse. After being cited for violating the county zoning code, however, he has spent nearly $2,000 in an administrative battle with the county that’s still underway.

Grapin said Tuesday that if he had known how much it was going to cost to obtain the requisite permits, he might have taken his boys to Disneyland instead.

“It’s a treehouse, for crying out loud,” Grapin said.


Mark Grapin spent $1,400 on materials to build his sons’ treehouse — and another $2,000 so far on an administrative battle with Fairfax County, which says the treehouse violates zoning laws. (Courtesy of Mark Grapin)

County officials say the Grapins violated zoning regulations that try to ensure that everyone lives in a safe, well-kept neighborhood. In a 4-to-3 vote, the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals denied his request for a zoning variance last month. But the board has agreed to reconsider the case Nov. 30.

Grapin, 51, said he only wanted to give his sons the kind of hideaway he knew as kid growing up in Redondo Beach, Calif., when he and friends built a treehouse using bent nails, apple crates and whatever else they could scavenge.

First, Grapin checked with the county’s building department. A friendly employee told him that, no, he did not need a building permit and to have a nice day.

So off he went to the hardware store for the materials to construct a 58-square-foot treehouse — painted red, with a pitched roof and orange window shutters and braced with stilts — around the only sturdy tree on their Falls Church property.

What Grapin did not realize was that because he lives in a corner lot at Marc Drive and Parkwood Terrace, he would need a variance to build any such structure in what the zoning code considers a front yard. Responding to two anonymous complaints, a county inspector went around to have a look. Soon, the Grapins received notice that they were in violation of Section 10-104 (12C) of the county zoning code.

“Because of the location on his lot, he does have to follow the zoning code,” said Merni Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the county. “It’s no different from a shed or a garage or any structure.”

One of Grapin’s weapons in the battle against bureaucracy has been good cheer. In the back and forth with county inspectors, he invited them more than once to drop by an “Open Treehouse” event his sons held to gather neighborhood support, and he joked that he would soon be friendly with the post office because of all the notices he had to send to meet legal requirements.


Mark Grapin built a treehouse for his sons beside their Falls Church home, but ran afoul of the county zoning code. Above, Grapin’s son Sean in the treehouse. (Courtesy of Mark Grapin)

When he visited Board of Supervisors member Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) to enlist her support, his sons — Eric, 11, and Sean, 9 — went along on a visit to earn merit badge credits for scouting. To enlist neighborhood support, the boys also set up a free lemonade stand and gathered more than 155 signatures on a petition. The fuss has also gathered media attention, including a link to the Drudge Report, since Washington area news stations aired the story late Monday.

Grapin admits that he should have checked a little further before lifting a hammer.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” he said in phone interview Tuesday. But he also feels a little put out by having to joust with a government whose workforce numbers about 11,000 and whose budget tops $6 billion.

“It’s sort of a monster of our making in the county,” Grapin said. “Am I disappointed in the process, that it’s so red-tapish? Sure. But you live by the rules.”

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