Letter to the editor: Historic homes and tree houses

To the editor:

At the April 18 Farmington City Council meeting, councilman Greg Cowley mentioned a new tree house at 33928 Grand River. “I’ll be blunt,” he said “It looks like a doghouse in a tree.”

The tree house is located in the Farmington Historic District, where a struggle has long ensued over whether to create a city ordinance protecting the homes’ historic authenticity.

Cowley consistently votes “no.” Now, he’s trying to use the new tree house as “evidence” that historic district homeowners don’t care about the value of their real estate—something a historic district is designed to maintain and strengthen.

Cowley challenged someone to discuss how Farmington tree houses are approved, specifically in the historic district, and what value they provide to the historic district at large.

Here’s the short answer.

Tree houses and other playhouses do not require building permits. However, certain generalities—like height, size, and location—may apply under the City of Farmington Zoning Ordinance for Accessory Buildings and Structures (Article 2, Sections 35-43 and 3544). The tree house in question, although in the historic district, is a temporary outbuilding, and is not covered by Farmington’s current historic district ordinance.

Now, the long answer.

There are no laws governing tree house aesthetics in Farmington’s historic district.

Homeowners, as long as they comply with city zoning, can build whatever kind of tree house they wish—even if looks, as Cowley thinks, like a doghouse in a tree.

Similarly, there are no laws governing historic house aesthetics in Farmington’s historic district. Homeowners, as long as they comply with city zoning, can make whatever modifications they wish—even if the result is incompatible with the house’s original architectural style.

“Why is this stuff continuing?” Cowley asks, referring to both tree houses and historic homes. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. But the answer is easy, although Cowley doesn’t seem to see it: Lack of regulation.

Farmington’s historic district is stuck in a Catch-22. Without special rules, houses lose their authenticity and fall away from the district. Then, the fact that this is happening gets cited as evidence against regulations, because either (1) homeowners aren’t demonstrating interest by following non-mandatory suggestions, or (2) the district is already full of holes, and isn’t worth saving.

There’s one clear way out of this mess, and that’s for city council to implement special rules for the historic district, like virtually every small town around us already has. Until then, the self-destructing cycle will continue—a point Cowley unwittingly makes himself. And Farmington can’t afford that. Just about every bit of PR for the city mentions its graceful, elegant historic district. Losing that would throw our identity into jeopardy.

If Cowley gets his way, new tree house laws are just around the corner. But let’s be realistic: Tree houses are temporary. A botched historic district is permanent. Let’s drop the pretenses, get to the heart of the matter, and pass legislation that protects Farmington’s character for generations to come.

Maria Taylor
Preservation Farmington