A Falls Church family now will be able to legally enjoy its treehouse for at least the next five years.
The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals granted Mark Grapin a variance Wednesday morning, permitting the treehouse to stay put. It previously had been found in violation of county zoning laws because of its location on the Grapins’ property.
“We’re absolutely overjoyed,” Grapin said. “The boys are delighted.”
Grapin built the treehouse for his sons Eric, 11, and Sean, 9, this past spring to fulfill a promise he made before being deployed to Iraq a few years ago.
Before starting to build the treehouse, Grapin called the county building permits office and was told he did not need a building permit. But about halfway through the construction process, he received notice the treehouse violated zoning laws because it technically is in the front yard of his corner lot property. Corner lots are considered to have two front yards.
Zoning codes prohibit any “accessory structures” such as sheds, swingsets and pools from being located in front yards.
The Board of Zoning Appeals denied Grapin’s first request for a variance in September on a 4-3 vote but, a week later, the board agreed to rehear his case. Following the second hearing Nov. 30, the board unanimously approved the variance.
The county could choose to appeal the board’s decision within the next 30 days. Grapin said he hopes that, because he had the help of a land-use attorney in preparing his second application, he now has a strong enough legal case to avoid the appeals process.
The unusual nature of the case garnered national media attention, and hundreds of people signed an online petition supporting the Grapins’ cause. Several neighbors testified or wrote letters in support of the treehouse, and no one spoke in opposition to the structure remaining in place.
However, board member James Hart said, “We do not have the discretion to grant a variance out of kindness or compassion.”
Hart was one of the board members who reversed his position, something he said he never has done.
The primary reason Hart changed his mind is that, because of the size of the Grapins’ lot and the placement of their house on the lot, they have a very small backyard, meaning there essentially is no legal place to install an accessory structure, such as the treehouse, on the property.
“I think this is a unique situation,” he said.
The board put some development conditions on the variance. Grapin must better screen the treehouse with some plantings and can only leave the structure in place for as long as five years. If the family moves before the five-year variance is up, it does not carry over to the new owners.
Grapin said he is appreciative of the community support and plans to display a “Thanks, Fairfax” sign for a few days.
“I’ve made sure to impress upon the boys ... how much you can affect things for the better,” Grapin said.
Although the community support would not have been enough without the legal justification, he said, “it helped give the incentive to find a legal solution.”