The Grapins’ tree house (Courtesy of Mark Grapin)

The Board of Zoning Appeals, reversing an earlier decision, agreed unanimously Wednesday to grant a a variance to the tree house that Mark W. Grapin built earlier this year for his two sons before he had to leave on another tour to Iraq.

Wednesday’s decision was a victory for Grapin, who spent more money defending the tree house in an administrative battle than he did building it. The county’s action against the tree house also led to national media coverage and an online petition defending the Grapins, while county officials said they had no choice but to enforce a law that keeps everyone’s neighborhood safe and orderly.

Grapin, 51, who is with the Army National Guard, constructed a red, 58-square-foot tree house last spring around the only sturdy tree on their Falls Church property.

Zoning officials, responding to anonymous complaints, said the Grapins’ tree house violated a county zoning ordinance that regulates the construction of any accessory structure, such as a shed, in people’s front yards. The Grapins live on a corner lot, so its two yards were both defined under the code as front yards, officials said.

Last month, the Board of Zoning Appeals declined to grant a variance, which requires a showing of hardship. Its decision meant the tree house was in violation of zoning laws and must come down.

On Wednesday, however, the board reversed itself, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said.

Voting 5 to 0, the board found that because the house’s placement on the unusually shaped, shallow property had limited the functionality of its backyard, the homeowners had little choice but to build it in front.

Fitzgerald said the board also conditioned its approval, saying that the tree house must be screened by trees. The variance also can last no more than five years and cannot be transferred with ownership of the property.

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