Pete Nelson makes his living building solid little cabins that look big up in the trees. He builds them for other people, and he teaches how to do it at his compound called Treehouse Point, near Fall City, Wash.
Some people might call them luxurious. Nelson calls one of them a "love shack."
"There's just one big queen-sized bed, sits up high, it's got windows all around, so you can look out and see the river almost below you," Nelson says. "We're about 70 feet off of the high water."
The floor is black walnut. The touches of redwood are from wine casks. The whole thing is held up by six bolts in two trees. Nelson wants to turn the treehouse into a bed and breakfast. And he wants to build more.
"I've got this plan for kind of a California bungalow style," he says. "Imagine getting REI out here with their budget meetings and looking over the Raging River. That's kind of the stuff I love to think about and get excited about."
But here's the thing: Nelson didn't get a permit to build it.
"It probably wasn't the right thing to do, but I decided that I'll just build one of these and show them what it is as opposed to drawing it and talking about it with hand gestures," he says.
Nelson Versus King County
The county found out after Nelson cut down a tree and was caught doing it by a neighbor. That neighbor reported Nelson to the county — and the truth came out.
That's when Joe Miles, who oversees building permits, got involved. He has a file a couple of inches thick on Nelson, including aerial photos of the treehouse. It's Miles' job to make sure buildings are safe and don't harm the environment.
"The treehouse was located in what we call the channel migration zone, where the Raging River, which it's next to, is anticipated to move into this area," Miles says.
The river's changing course has already taken out several homes, so the county doesn't want people to build next to it.
But Nelson hired his own land-use consultant. He got positive press in Seattle and the support of his representative on the King County Council.
Miles and his department decided to go into mediation with Nelson, and it seems to have worked. They settled on a few modifications so far. The county says that maybe the flood hazard is far enough away that the treehouse can stay for the moment. But it does want Nelson to install a sink for his incinerating toilet and sprinklers in case of a fire.
And although Nelson has generated a thick file and hours of work for Miles, it's not for naught. Miles says the whole thing could help people across the country.
"We think we are blazing new ground here, and maybe creating an opportunity where we could create a standardized method to build treehouses in King County that maybe other jurisdictions could adopt," Miles says.
But for Nelson's treehouse, Mother Nature will eventually weigh in. He says the Raging River did flood this month. Some ferns between the treehouse and the river washed away. But the trees holding up the house are fine — for now.
Phyllis Fletcher reports for member station KUOW.