It started as a treehouse for a couple’s two young daughters that jutted from a Capitol Hill yard over a public alley.
But just as many other Washington stories unfold, this one has become a battle involving lawsuits, lawyers, reams of paperwork involving arcane zoning rules and allegations of government malfeasance — with a new, added twist of a claim of hacking that’s been reported to the FBI.
The heart of the case is a 30-square-foot treehouse that protrudes about 20 inches over a mulched tree box in a U-shaped alley called Archibald Walk. The saga started three years ago when Ellen Psychas and her husband, Bonding Yee, wanted a play place for their young daughters, now 5 and 7, and built a castle-looking treehouse in a 100-year-old American elm tree.
But through the years, the treehouse has divided neighbors on the narrow street, near G and Sixth in Southeast Washington, that’s lined with a half-dozen homes. Supporters say that it’s a gathering spot for neighborhood children to play. Opponents argue that it extends into a public alley and wasn’t properly permitted.
After a January 2016 hearing, the District government later fined the couple $2,000 and ordered them to take down the treehouse. But they appealed the decision and have since ratcheted the case up a notch.
They filed suit last week in U.S. District Court, alleging, among other things, that officials with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) hacked into Psychas’s online city zoning account without her knowledge — a violation of a federal computer fraud and abuse act, they claim.
“While a permitting matter pertaining to a child’s backyard play fort would not normally be the topic of litigation in Federal court, a violation of the [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] is a serious Federal criminal offense,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit seeks undisclosed compensatory damages, plus damages for emotional distress and a jury trial.
DDOT officials referred a request for comment to the city’s lawyers. Robert Marus, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, said in an email that his office was reviewing the complaint and had no comment on the pending litigation.
The treehouse tale has a long trail of paperwork, including permits, stop-work orders, appeals and letters of support and criticism.
Psychas, who counsels high school students about college, and Yee, a Department of Homeland Security lawyer, maintain that the city didn’t have clear rules on whether the treehouse needed a permit. But they said they do have a city-issued “balcony” permit issued after an inspector looked at the treehouse after neighbors complained.
Some neighbors argue, however, that the treehouse owners took control of a small public space and extended a private treehouse without the proper approval.
On a neighborhood blog, Capitol Hill Corner, neighbors commented on the division it’s created. One commenter, Brian C., wrote: “People who oppose treehouses never had, nor ever will have, any quality of life.” Another, identifying as RD, wrote: “It’s a treehouse. Relax people.”
As the treehouse fight has continued through the years, the family said it has received support, including from pruners who take care of decaying branches for free and bags of change in their mailbox with handwritten notes from kids that read, “please don’t let anybody hurt the princess castle.”
Yee said he took the case to federal court after attempts at zoning appeals and negotiations with the city seemed to stall or fail. And he faced a statute of limitations on filing the federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, he said.
But ultimately, he said, it is about a treehouse for kids.
“The city shouldn’t be hassling a family like this,” he said. “This isn’t one of those matters they should be spending a lot of time on.” Yee said he’s spent “a lot of time and effort” in his fight to save the treehouse.
“We want to do right by our children,” he said. “Especially if our government is abusing its authority in this way, we can fight that. I think it is well worth it.”
The couple said their daughters play in the treehouse once or twice a week and it has hosted more than 250 kids who have had parties or playdates. It also has its own Web page — www.rescuetreehouse.com.
In their suit, the couple alleges that Psychas’s online permit account for the treehouse was hacked on Jan. 15, 2016, by a citywide permitting manager at DDOT, with approval from his supervisor.
Psychas said in court filings that D.C. officials told her in an email that they, unbeknown to her, changed her account password and submitted an “unrequested and unauthorized permit application” on her behalf for the treehouse. According to records, she said she believes city officials were “unaware” that their actions were a crime.
The couple said they’ve reported the alleged hacking to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
In a Jan. 15 email to Psychas, the city permit manager said he created an “active permit application” and changed her password before a critical Jan. 28, 2016, meeting of the District’s Public Space Committee. The official told Psychas via email that he needed to make a renewal permit application “so that comments could be uploaded prior to the meeting.”
The couple said they believe they didn’t need a renewal permit because they already had what they believed was the necessary permit for the treehouse. So the Public Space Committee, they claim, ruled on a permit they never officially applied for. The couple alleged that the city was trying to pull off a “well-orchestrated permitting trick.”
In their 49-page federal lawsuit — plus another 69 pages of exhibits — they said, “Drawn-out litigation, lasting almost two years to date, stems not only from the DDOT’s permitting malfeasance and incompetence, but from the agency’s intransigence and lack of common sense in declining to amicably settle a trifling public space management matter that has long since ceased to be an active controversy in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.”
Why not move the treehouse?
The couple said it would cost about $5,000 to take down and move.