A Stump Is Not A Tree, A Shed Is Not A House


Count us among the folks regularly amazed by all the wondrous structures Pete Nelson and his “Treehouse Masters” crew can build in all sorts of trees.

But even though some of the designs can be a bit exotic, we’ve never seen anybody come to blows over them.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for what has become Park Ridge’s most famous/infamous “treehouse” at 916 N. Western Ave. Unlike the lush canopies in which Pete and his crew construct their dwellings, however, this one isn’t lodged among serveral sturdy limbs. Instead, it’s perched on what looks to be a five-foot stumpSo it’s actually a “stumphouse” rather than a treehouse, despite its almost 15-foot height.

With its elevated walkway and slides, and at a reported cost of $26,000, we’re surprised the owners didn’t spring for some artificial leafy branches – and maybe even a few Ewoks – to complete the tableau.

A few fake leafy branches, however, probably wouldn’t have been enough to smooth the feathers the stumphouse has ruffled among some of its neighbors.

As reported in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Support for Park Ridge treehouse led to fistfight, neighbors say,” March 1) and on last Tuesday (March 1) night’s WGN news, an altercation occurred between the stumphouse’s next-door neighbor, who posted a yard sign supporting the structure, and another neighbor whose critical review of the stumphouse was a one middlefinger up. The result: battery charges pending against the supportive neighbor.

One reason we have building and zoning codes is to provide some uniformity and predictability in the appearance and use of private properties in the community. Designed and administered properly, such codes smooth the rough edges and should, at least indirectly, reduce tensions between neighbors over how they use and maintain their property.

So when a structure provokes fisticuffs, it’s probably a good idea to take a closer look into how it got built in the first place. And when we checked the stumphouse documents posted on the City’s website we found some very curious things.

For starters, we found only one permit, No. B1401057 (issued May 29, 2014), having been issued for a “Deck/Deck Addition” valued at $2,400 and carrying a $156 permit fee. That sure doesn’t sound like a permit for a $26,000 stumphouse, so we dug a little deeper. And what we discovered is that about five months after that permit was issued, things started to take a turn for the strange.

According to an October 29, 2014 “Hi Joe” e-mail from the City’s then-Zoning Coordinator, Ed Cage, the permit’s “Deck/Deck Addition” description had mysteriously morphed into what Cage was calling a “deck/treehouse.” Curiously enough, Cage actually warned Solomon against seeking a “variance option” which, according to Cage, “is going to be tough because your neighbor will come to the meetings and it will not go smoothly.”

Can’t you almost see the Chicago-style winks and nods in Cage’s words?

Next, the City’s then-Building Administrator, Lonnie Spires, sent Solomon a November 24, 2014 e-mail in which Spires references the original “deck permit” as having been revised according to some unspecified “drawings.” But we could find no new or revised permit referencing a $26,000 “deck/treehouse” (or “deck/stumphouse”). Nor does it appear that the Solomons paid any additional permit fee for a stumphouse costing 10 times the declared cost of their original “Deck/Deck Addition.”

By March 2015, Cage had departed for a similar job with the City of Wood Dale, and Spires was gone to the Village of Plainfield by June 2015. As best as we can tell, their respective tenures with the City were less than three years. We also hear they were hand-picked hires of the City’s Community Preservation & Development Director, Jim Testin, although we do not yet have confirmation of that.

Irrespective of how they obtained their City employment, however, they were Testin’s subordinates. And if they screwed up, Testin most definitely should be held accountable for that.

Upon inheriting this odd situation, Cage’s successor, Howard Coppari, inspected the stumphouse before e-mailing Testin on July 6, 2015, to advise him that the Solomons’ “Deck/Deck Addition” violated Code because the “deck” was actually an “elevated walkway” more than 8 feet in the air and not attached to the house. He also advised Testin that the Solomons dropped Cage’s and Spires’ names “constantly when [he] was on their property.”

You know, the way some Chicago folks might drop their alderman’s or ward committeeman’s name in the course of dealing with some pesky inspector.

But apparently it didn’t work with Coppari, who sent an August 19, 2015 letter to the Solomons reiterating some of the things he told Testin, and calling the stumphouse “a shed” that was taller than the Code’s 12-foot height limit for sheds.

From everything we’ve been able to check, Coppari’s findings seem to be correct. Which calls into question Cage’s and Spires’ judgment, actions and motives.

The Solomons appealed from Coppari’s determination, and their appeal was addressed at the January 28, 2016 Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. At that hearing the Solomons – through their attorney – focused on the Cage and Spires e-mails, and on the verbal assurances they allegedly gave the Solomons about the structures.

Although the ZBA members empathized with the Solomons’ situation, they noted the Code violations and the gaps in the Solomons’ paperwork before choosing to uphold the Code requirements and Coppari’s decision.

Now the Solomons are saying they will take the City to court on the ZBA’s rejection of their appeal.

Sadly, this hasn’t been the first instance where the building department’s seeming incompetence and slipshod paperwork have caused rather than resolved problems.

For example, we wrote several posts about the residence at 322 Vine (e.g., 05.23.12) and how the then-Building Administrator, Steve Cutaia, since departed for parts unknown, appears to have botched the City’s inspection and certification process so badly – and reportedly gave such ill-advised verbal assurances to the owners – that the then-City attorney couldn’t even use Cutaia as a witness to prosecute the Code violations.

We can’t help but wonder if that would be the case if Cage and/or Spires were subpoenaed to testify in a court hearing regarding the stumphouse. Assuming, of course, that the Solomons actually follow through and sue the City.

And we also can’t help but wonder if the mere sight of the stumphouse would make Pete Nelson and his Treehouse Masters crew cringe.

To read or post comments, click on title.

16 comments so far

When I first heard about this my initial reaction was disappointment with the city for giving the homeowner a hard time. Then I saw pictures of this monstrosity and though gee it doesn’t look like a tree house and if it was my neighbor that built it with a great view of my backyard I’d be pretty hacked off. Of course the truth of this whole mess probably lies somewhere between what all parties are saying. At any rate this whole thing reeks without even bringing the neighbor and his idiotic sign into the equation. End rant.

Thank you for telling the truth and calling a shed mounted on a stump a stumphouse, not a treehouse.

I do not live where I can look out my window and see that structure looming, but if I did I would be ticked. I cannot imagine how this thing could have passed a legitimate inspection by Cage or Spires, so this does not pass the smell test.

And if these people really spent $26,000 on this thing, they are foolish people.

I’m not sure how to feel.

If there’s anything that I might find fault with the family is that fact it’s claimed to be too close to the neighbor’s yard.

Of course I wonder if they realized and paid attention to it when the tree house was being constructed?

EDITOR’S NOTE: No, as we understand it, the original version was too close to the neighbor’s property. Now it’s just in violation of various other Code provisions.

That is NOT a “treehouse.” Never was, never will be. So calling it a “treehouse” doesn’t make it so.

Now, what could Cage and Spires possibly be thinking, or smoking, when they were supposed to be applying the City’s zoning code to this monstrosity? Based on their approval of this (and the “Hi Joe” e-mail, which makes me want to punch somebody), the Solomons could have gone to Home Depot, bought their biggest aluminum storage shed, and stuck it on that tree stump, and Cage and Spires would have approved it.


I heard the Solomons cut down the tree so that they could have the stump to mount that shed on, and that they did not have a tree removal permit.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve heard similar rumors, but no proof yet.

I live near that 322 Vine monstrosity and know all the problems its next-door neighbors had with flooding because of how the city screwed up or rolled over for that builder and owner. You’re right, this sounds like the same kind of kinky deal. Mr. Testin owes us an explanation.

It is interesting to put this topic along side the discussion in the last thread, that being the development of the Talcott property.

With the “treehouse” it seems people are upset because the rules were “bent” to allow it. It the case of the development, it seems there is a group upset that the rules were not “bent” (although some tried) to disallow it. Is it a wonder people are pissed off at government??

How about this? Let’s impartially follow the rules as they exist. If a given calls suggest that the rules may need to be adjusted let’s have a transparent discussion and vote around changing those rules. Finally, let’s hold those on staff tasked with enforcing those rules responsible for their actions.

It’s interesting that the homeowner is so interested in having this “stumphouse,” since the owner doesn’t even live in that house. The people living in the house are relatives of the owner.

The records show that the tree was cut down in violation of city ordinances and the owner had to pay a fine. So, that’s the start of this fiasco. The communications in writing, and the owner’s description of verbal communications with city staff seems to indicate that our city workers were trying to allow the homeowner to build this thing, and turn a blind eye to the whole thing. Seems like a nice thing to do for the homeowner, but awfully inconsiderate to the adjoining neighbor.

Bottom line is that Tree Houses, and Stump Houses are not specifically identified in the zoning regulations. Anything that is not specifically noted/identified in the zoning codes is not allowed in our city. The END.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And then those “nice” city workers left their mess behind and paddled off to public sector jobs in other communities, thereby dodging any accountability.

Welcome to the world of irresponsible government employment.

Just to clarify PD, you do realize there is a great deal of this going on in the private sector as well, right??

I mean over the years I have spent waaaay too much time cleaning up other peoples messes after they moved on to other opportunities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Of course there is: this editor makes his living cleaning up other people’s messes, 99-44/100 % of which are in the private sector. But the total lack of accountability in the public sector is unparalleled because the total absence of the profit motive virtually eliminates both the consequences of the messes and the incentive to prevent or punish them.

Bottom line is that Tree Houses, and Stump Houses are not specifically identified in the zoning regulations. Anything that is not specifically noted/identified in the zoning codes is not allowed in our city. The END.

You mean like ordinance not mentioning allowing residential parking on the ground level of a b-1 building (400 Talcott) which should have prevented that from occurring if the judge believed what you say about the exclusionary nature of our zoning ordinance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We hope you appreciated the irony of “allowing residential parking on the ground level of a b-1 building” when you typed it…and realized why that may have been the central problem with the City’s attempting to enforce the Code in the fashion it did.

That’s the kind of thing I’d expect to see in a trailer park, as the park’s clubhouse. All that’s missing is a confederate flag and a pink flamingo.

What kind of scam was this?


Careful with that line of thinking. It’s a slippery slope to be including people’s individual taste in these decisions. I could show you some houses in PR that I believe would fit perfectly in a trailer park, but that is based on my taste. It is better be to argue against it based on the rules.

By the way, you might want to get used to that flag. Based on what I am seeing lately there is a strong chance it may be making a comeback.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And make sure you keep your eyes open for anybody buying more than one set of white bedsheets.

What so you mean by that statement on houses here in town that would fit in a trailer park?


As I stated it is all a matter of individaul taste. There are some houses here in PR that have had additions slapped on with no rhyme nor reason. Frankly some of them look terrible.

While I have not seen any Pink Flamingo’s, there are plenty of plastic geese and deer in peoples front lawns.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Are you sure those geese are plastic and not concrete? Do their owners dress them up in little outfits?


I said it is individual taste.

I think there are some hideous houses in PR with additions slapped on with no real design, kind of like a porch on a double wide Also, while I have never seen a pink flamingo in PR, I have seen plenty of plastic geese, deer and other fake critters or yard ornaments that are more that Trailer park worthy!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: There goes the neighborhood.

Heck, a simple salt lick or two would probably attract some of those abundant “wild” deer we have around here. But attracting live flamingoes would be tougher.

You obviously have too much time on your hands 12:05.

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