By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
SELINSGROVE -- Tears streamed down 11-year-old Samantha Carlson’s cheeks after the Selinsgrove Zoning Hearing Board on Thursday night denied a variance request that would have allowed her father to keep the tree house he was building for his daughter’s birthday.
The five-member zoning board ruled unanimously that the tree house violated a borough ordinance and that it had to be razed.
Upon hearing the vote, Samantha’s father, a visibly upset John “J.C.” Carlson, said: “After serving 22 years in the military and thinking I’ve seen everything, tonight proved me absolutely wrong. I’ve never in my life seen anyone deny a child a tree house.”
For more than an hour, the Carlsons, represented by attorney Joel Wiest, and about 14 friends and neighbors, attempted to persuade the board that the family should be granted a variance, and allowed to continue to build an 8-foot by 6-foot wooden structure on a tree stump in the front yard of the Carlsons’ 701 W. Spruce St. home.
Wiest opened the hearing by conceding that the tree house could be classified as an “accessory structure” on Carlson’s property.
“What we are asking for this evening is a variance from that portion of your borough code, which states that the setback for a structure in this zoned area is 35 feet. We are asking for a variance from that requirement.”
Carlson has lived in his house for about four years with his wife, Fay, and Samantha. On her birthday in May, she asked her father if he could build a tree house.
The only tree on the property was the stump in the front yard.
“It’s the only place he could build a tree house,” Wiest said. “It’s a stump, that’s true, but it’s a tree stump.”
Carlson began to build the tree house, but when code officer Janet Powers saw it while driving by, she noted that it violated the zoning ordinance because it was located on his front lawn on a lot that doesn’t accommodate its large size.
After receiving notice of the violation, Carlson stopped building the tree house and asked for a zoning board hearing to make the case for a variance.
One by one, neighbors stood up and testified under oath that having the tree house in the neighborhood would not detract from the essence of the neighborhood.
Neighbor George Pence said he collected a petition signed by 20 neighbors saying “Let them build the tree house.”
Another neighbor, Carol Scartelli, said: “I am thrilled at the project. It is something Mark Twain would do.”
Terry Sprenkle attested to the family’s character.
“They are good people, a good Christian family and it is how they are raising their daughter,” she said. “This shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s only a temporary tree house. Let’s just let them have it.”
But several board members noted that a playhouse could be build elsewhere on the property that would adhere to the code. It just wouldn’t be a tree house.
After the Carlsons and their supporters presented their case, the board went into a brief executive session prior to voting.
“This is just ridiculous,” Carlson said during the break. “I never thought it would come to this. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d have to testify just so that I could fulfill my daughter’s wishes.”
After the decision, Wiest said: “This was not unexpected. The law was gray in this area and the board could have gone either way and I will talk to Mr. Carlson and his family to determine whether they want to appeal this case. I’m willing to do so at this point.”
After the vote, zoning board chairman Runkle looked out at the media members covering the meeting and said: “I guess we’re really being made to look like the bad guys. But there is the alternative we suggested that a playhouse could be built elsewhere on the property. And rather than using an unstable tree stump, Mr. Carlson could use a lumber block and build what amounts to a tree house that would be safer ... and still meet code requirements.
“It might not meet the young lady’s definition of a tree house, but in the board’s opinion it would be a sufficient substitute.
“Good luck,” Runkle added, “with the tree house in the backyard.”
Added board solicitor Robert Slivinski: “It’s a good thing she didn’t ask for a castle with a moat for her birthday. Look, we are bound by the municipality’s planning code, which is state law, which is mirrored in the borough’s ordinance. The law is very specific about when we can grant a variance. It’s very strict. Every board member would have loved for that little girl to have a tree house, but the law just didn’t allow it. If there is a change, the change has to be with the Borough Council.”