Suburban treehouse illustrates typical NIMBY debates

A man in Arlington Heights, Illinois built a fairly large treehouse in his backyard: “It has a wraparound deck, two levels, small windows, siding and roofing that mimics the family home’s.” It drew the attention of several neighbors who then complained to the village who subsequently passed new regulations for treehouses. However, since this treehouse was built before the new regulations, it can stay put.

This could just be a local issue except that the pattern of events fits many NIMBY discussions in suburban communities. Here are some of the comments made by people involved in the story:

Village Manager Bill Dixon said treehouses have not been a major issue in town and urged the village board not to overreact to one particular case, no matter how bad.

“There are 18,000 single-family homes in town, but this is the only one we’re hearing about,” he said.

But Trustee Thomas Glasgow, who lives in the neighborhood, said the treehouse is overwhelming. He believes property values in the area have diminished as a result.

At Glasgow’s recommendation, the board agreed to limit the structures to the height of the home on the property.

Mayor Arlene Mulder expressed concern, however, that the code could effectively ban treehouses for some properties.

But Trustee Joseph Farwell said: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.”…

But Piotrowski [one of the neighbors], who spoke at a recent village board meeting, said the new rules don’t go far enough. He wants to see the houses banned all together because he believes they are not safe.

For his part, Belmonte said the whole conflict could have been avoided if Piotrowski had raised his concerns right from the start.

In one story, you have many of the elements of a typical NIMBY issue: a person does something with their property that some neighbors do not like. These neighbors argue the action reduces property values and raises safety concerns. The community ends up creating new regulations to avoid such issues in the future while knowing that they may be limiting people from doing similar things. The property owner says that if the neighbors had simply come to him first, none of the rest of this had to happen.

The key quote to me comes from one of the village trustees: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.” This is true – communities have all sorts of regulations and zoning in place to help limit some of these issues. And much of this has been codified even further in homeowners associations that really limit some of the possible actions by individual owners. Homeowners submit to these regulations because they don’t want to have to worry about what their neighbors might do and to protect their all important housing values. But the enduring question from this story and other similar cases is this: where does a community draw the line between the rights of individual property owners and the interests of neighbors and the rest of the community? At least in Arlington Heights, future treehouse builders will be more limited in what they construct in order to balance these two competing interests.

One thought on “Suburban treehouse illustrates typical NIMBY debates

  1. Pingback: Eight (unlikely and unpopular) policy options for addressing housing issues | Legally Sociable

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