Not Over My Back Yard

Size, proximity of Medford tree house leads to dispute between neighbors
Beth Powell stands under a shed-sized tree house that hovers over her property in Medford.Jamie Lusch

A pair of homeowners are at odds over a newly constructed tree house that looms over the Lazy Creek bike path on Greenbrook Drive in east Medford. One neighbor sees it as a childhood rite of passage; the other says it's a property-invading eyesore.

Beth Powell, a registered nurse, said when her neighbor began constructing the tree house last fall, she worried it would be unsightly and invade her privacy.

What she didn't expect was a nearly 200-square-foot structure extending over her fence line.

Aaron Ford, a local science teacher, said he erected the tree house at the request of his son.

"We have a very small yard and a 5-year-old son, and we came up with this dream one day," Ford said. "My son was brainstorming and we thought up a whole bunch of different things we could try to do and we were just making a fantasy list and a tree house was on it.

"Later that day my son said, 'Hey, Dad, about that tree house, let's build that thing.' "

Ford built the structure in the lone suitable tree, tucked just alongside the property line in his backyard.

Powell, who calls the tree house a "more than tremendous invasion of privacy," said she was shocked at the size of Ford's creation.

"When he first started building it, I didn't know, or I couldn't imagine, how big it was going to be," she said. "I had no clue, but I said, 'Please just don't put windows on my side.' And he said, 'All right.'

"Then he built the thing 16 inches from my fence line — forget about the law that says a 4-foot setback. So I went to the city and they made him move it and he told me, 'Fine, now I'm going to put a window on your side.' "

Without a building permit required, Powell noted, Ford had "no building standards to follow" and plans were not required to be reviewed.

Under Medford building codes, accessory structures do not require a building permit if they are smaller than 200 square feet and shorter than 10 feet in height.

On Friday, Powell said the structure loomed some 17 to 20 feet in the air, but city officials were unsure of how the structure height would be determined — from the ground up, from a deck below the tree house that surrounds the tree, or just the building alone. From the base of the structure to its roof is just under 10 feet.

Ford admits the tree house is of an impressive scale and that the color of the raw lumber is stark, but he hopes it will blend "with the natural surroundings."

As to the window, Ford said it was not added in spite but merely to allow light into the tree house and that it's high enough that no one can peek onto Powell's patio.

City of Medford assistant planning director Bianca Petrou said while the house did not require a building permit, all structures are required to meet building codes.

Petrou said she planned to look at the tree house but could not comment on issues other than setback. She said city officials had ordered Ford to comply with setback rules in recent weeks, pushing the tree house from 16 inches back to 4 feet from Powell's fence.

"Normally with a building, you appeal the permit, but if there isn't a permit required, then there's nothing to appeal," she said.

Petrou said if the height is determined to be 15 feet or more, a larger setback could be required.

"It will be interesting to see actual height. We have a way of measuring building height that could require more than that 4-foot setback," said Petrou.

"As far as us getting involved, it would be up to the property owner next door to prove it doesn't meet the code. For now, the only thing we can talk about is setback."

Powell has posted protest signs on the bike path and said she may appeal to the City Council.

"I find it hard to believe that this is something that is allowed to happen in the city of Medford. No one would want to live next door to this," Powell said.

"When he started building this monstrosity, they had a sort of barn or tree house raising and I could hear his friends out there saying, 'Oh my God, Aaron, this thing is huge!' And he just laughed and said, 'Uh, yeah, I guess it is.'"

Ford said he has "no desire to be a bad neighbor" and hopes that Powell will be happier with his completed project.

"She's told me in a variety of ways that she's unhappy about it, but I see this as something out of a heart to build something for my son," he said.

"I'm certainly not one to be bullied. I don't deny, it's pretty impressively sized, but I'm proud of the way it looks."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at

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