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Folsom treehouse sparks nearly 2-hour City Hall debate. Here’s why it’ll likely be torn down

Listen to Brian Esola make his case for treehouses in Folsom

Folsom resident Brian Esola went before the Folsom City Council Tuesday night, August 12, 2018, to propose a governing ordinance that might allow his family to keep their elaborate, dream treehouse in their backyard.
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Folsom resident Brian Esola went before the Folsom City Council Tuesday night, August 12, 2018, to propose a governing ordinance that might allow his family to keep their elaborate, dream treehouse in their backyard.

Folsom resident Brian Esola stood before the City Council on Tuesday and delivered his defense of an elaborate, unique treehouse he built in his backyard for his four children.

It’s a treehouse that Esola, an insurance worker with no construction experience on his résumé, started building in January. One City Council member has called it “a work of art.”

But it has to come down or be altered significantly, the city maintained at its meeting Tuesday night, due to at least three noted violations of city ordinances. Namely, it is 6 feet too tall, too close to the property line and bolted to a sound wall without the city’s permission.

Esola was interested in a compromise. He asked the city in a Tuesday council meeting to consider establishing new, clearer ordinances governing treehouses like the one he worked to craft.

“They spark creativity. My kids hold school sessions for the neighborhood kids in our treehouse,” Esola explained to the council. “They have an easel, and they have school there all the time. They create projects, they’re going over math and homework and all the like. So it gets my kids out of the house.”

Esola told The Sacramento Bee prior to Tuesday’s meeting that he’d read through city codes and ordinances before building the structure. He called the problem he’s facing an issue of semantics, to some extent – ordinances do not explicitly mention or regulate treehouses. They do regulate accessory buildings, which include “playhouses,” but by Esola’s understanding, a treehouse is not exactly a playhouse, nor is it any other type of accessory building. Those are typically built on the ground rather than in trees, he said.

Ultimately, the council decided it would not change or add to the zoning codes as of now. As a result, the recommendation by Steve Wang, Folsom’s city attorney, was to let code enforcement “run its course,” as he said during Tuesday’s meeting, which was webcasted.

Esola’s treehouse will need to either be taken down or overhauled to meet codes, the latter of which options would require significant reconstruction.

“Our hands are cuffed right now,” Mayor Steve Miklos said Tuesday. “But, man, if there’s just a way to get it off the (sound) wall, move it back, lower it a little bit — maybe our tape measure’s off by a foot.”

Spirited discussion within the community and beyond ensued regarding Esola’s treehouse, which was reported to the city anonymously. The story picked up attention on social media, with people commenting it was “dumb” and “sad” that the city would force Esola to tear down a treehouse. Other commenters disagreed, saying Esola should not have built the treehouse with attachments to the sound wall.

Pam Johns, Folsom’s community development director, gave a 10-minute presentation on accessory structures, defining them and their standards. She said the ordinance governing accessory structures is “intended to be broad” and does include treehouses.

“We’re not allowed to vary from the health and safety issues associated with the building and fire code,” Johns added, saying treehouses cannot be built in violation of accessory structure codes.

The treehouse is a blue, shed-like structure, elevated 7 feet off the ground. It boasts a ladder, glass windows and a sign reading “Cottage Garden & Co.”

“I’m not trying to be a pain in anyone’s side. I know and fully respect our city and its governance,“ Esola said in Tuesday’s meeting, noting he has lived in Folsom since 2010.

Esola spoke for less than five minutes, saying he wants to help make Folsom the first city to create a treehouse ordinance. It may be the first of its kind in the U.S., he said.

An hour-and-45-minute discussion on treehouses and accessory structures followed.

Esola, who lives in the Lexington Hills neighborhood, says all of his neighbors are “totally fine” with the treehouse. Esola previously lived in Elk Grove, he told the council.

Esola had the support of Councilman Roger Gaylord, who asked what sort of adjustment would be needed to grant a variance, and whether it would be possible to adopt a treehouse ordinance.

“The family really struck a chord with me on having an ordinance on treehouses,” Gaylord said. “I’ll do anything to get my kids out of my house and let them play ... I feel like that would go hand-in-hand with some variance on this structure (Esola’s treehouse).”

However, the Esolas “don’t have unusual circumstances that are obvious” to grant such a variance, Johns said, such as extenuating hardships or serious problems that a variance would solve.

Gaylord disagreed.

“If every house in Folsom decided to build this type of a structure, I would be pleased. It’s amazing,” Gaylord said.

The four other council members expressed sympathy and complimented Esola’s treehouse, but stopped short of considering new or updated zoning codes.

Council member Andy Morin said Tuesday he is not interested in pursuing a treehouse ordinance. Morin said it would be “politically difficult” to create unique height, safety and fire codes to govern treehouses.

Morin acknowledged that Esola’s treehouse is well-made, but said that if more residents built backyard treehouses, a majority would not be built with the same quality or care.

Vice Mayor Ernie Sheldon, though, had an apparent change of heart by the middle of the meeting.

“I came in here with the preconceived notion to say ‘hell no.’ I’m changing my mind,” Sheldon said. “I think the way he (Esola) did it, a lot of people would do it the same way. So in order to stop that, we have to be more clear in the definition of ‘treehouse’ (in city code).”

But as for Esola’s treehouse, Sheldon said he still has safety concerns for any structure that doesn’t meet existing code.

More than an hour into the discussion, council member Kerri Howell said the council should stop talking about Esola’ unique treehouse situation, because the agenda item for that night’s meeting related to zoning codes of accessory structures. Therefore, they could not make any exemptions or a variance for Esola’s particular case.

Any further discussion on revising accessory structure codes would require an agenda item at another meeting.

On Facebook, Gaylord posted a link to a GoFundMe page that he started Wednesday in an effort to raise $3,000 for the Esolas toward the cost of removing the treehouse or bringing it to code.

“Naturally, we’ll take the matters into our own hands,” Gaylord wrote.

Brian Esola gives a tour Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, of the dream treehouse he built in his Folsom backyard. In an attempt to prevent its destruction, Esola will propose a treehouse ordinance to the Folsom City Council on Tuesday evening.

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