| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:55

    VERNON-What started out as a father's desire to build a storybook tree house for his children has turned into a bitter and protracted legal battle between Fredrick Hemmerich and the town of Vernon. Back in the spring of 2002, Hemmerich had a tree on his property that needed to be cut down, and he decided to leave enough trunk standing to serve as the base of a tree house. What he ended up with was two structures, a large, fully-enclosed "house" on the cut-off trunk of the tree connected to another tower by an elevated walkway. "I thought that the stump would provide a perfect base to build a tree house for my children," he said. "So I asked my next door neighbor if he would have a problem with it, and he told me that he did not like the idea of a structure overhanging his property. So I moved it ten feet to make sure that it was completely on my property," continued Hemmerich, who has a six-year-old son and a 13-year-old step daughter. "In July '02, I was just about finished with the tree house and I went to my neighbor and asked him if I could stain it on his side so that it would look nice for him too," said Hemmerich. "I also asked him what he thought of it. He told me; ‘You did what you had to do, and now I am going to do what I have to do.'" The neighbor, Tom D'Arcy, who declined to be interviewed, took the matter to township officials. In October of that year, after looking into the matter, township officials say they sent Hemmerich a letter advising him that normally, a tree house is not subject to building regulations. But, the letter continued, after inspecting the structure, the town's code enforcement officer determined that Hemmerich's structure was so large it was no longer a tree house, but an accessory structure, subject to the same regulations as sheds and garages. Hemmerich said he never received the letter, and didn't know there was a problem until he received a second reminder letter on Dec. 2, 2002. "When my neighbor told the town, they came by and took photos and didn't even bother to knock on the door and inform me that there was a problem," Hemmerich said. "When I went to the town they told me that a permit was not required for a Tree House or a play set." Dorrie Fox, the zoning officer for Vernon Township, concedes that Hemmerich may well have been told that he didn't need a building permit. "A building permit is not required for anything 100 square feet or below, however a zoning permit is required," she said. Nine months went by before, in August, 2003, Hemmerich received three citations, one for exceeding height restrictions, a second for failure to obtain a zoning permit and a third for failure to maintain side yard setback for an accessory structure. The first was dismissed. Hemmerich successfully appealed the second, but the third would not go away. When Hemmerich failed to move the structure to comply with set-back requirements, the case was brought before the Sussex County Superior Court. Last Oct. 21, Judge N. Peter Conforti granted Hemmerich a three-week adjournment to do one of the following: have an attorney represent him, apply for a variance with Vernon Township or modify the tree house so it is no longer an accessory structure. "On Dec. 7 we spoke to Mr. Hemmerich and advised him that we were prepared to drop everything, no fine, if he would just come into compliance," said Fox. Hemmerich instead returned to court, where he lost his appeal and was given until Jan. 29 to comply with the township's codes. One way to do that was to alter the structure by taking down the roof and walls so it was a platform and not an enclosed building. "Judge Conforti determined that if the roof and the walls were removed it would no longer constitute an accessory structure," said Fox. "I was looking for him to take it out of the tree completely. It's out of my hands now, however Mr. Hemmerich was given paperwork for a variance at least three to four times over the course of these proceedings," added Fox. "I still disagree with the ruling," said Hemmerich, who has yet to either alter or remove the tree house. "But I am prepared to take down the walls and roof. However, I would like to be able to have a railing for safety and some kind of roof for shade and esthetic purposes."