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Treehouse fan challenges county rules

Pete Nelson has big dreams of creating a treehouse lovers' paradise on the five picturesque acres he owns off Preston-Fall City Road.

Nelson's vision could come to fruition, if he can work out some permitting issues with King County.

When Nelson, who has spent years building treehouses all over the world, found the lush riverside property about two years ago, he immediately envisioned a bed and breakfast, an environmental retreat, a treehouse-building school, and a place where visitors could feel inspired at great heights.

"I fell in love with the land instantly. These trees were all, to me anyway, begging for tree houses," he said.

Nelson and his wife Judy converted the property's house into a cozy inn, renovated a carpenter's shop, and built scenic trails down to the river. Nelson seems intimately familiar with the plant life of TreeHouse Point as he oohs and aahs over cedar, moss and trilliums, and his enthusiasm bubbles over as he gives a tour of the property's only finished treehouse, the Temple of the Blue Moon. A swinging bridge leads to the 250-square-foot cedar structure, modeled after the Parthenon, which the Nelsons rent out as a unique romantic getaway.

"They're love shacks. Listen to the river, and look at the view. You can't get any better than that," Nelson said.

But part of the treehouse's charm - its proximity to the Raging River - is just what the county takes issue with.

The Temple is built on a cedar about 70 feet from the salmon-bearing, flood-prone river; regulations require buildings to be set back more than twice that distance. Nelson is currently pushing for the county to pass legislation exempting treehouses from the set-back regulations, arguing that his structures cause no negative impact.

"What we're paying money to get studied is, what is the impact of a treehouse? And nobody can think of anything," he said.

Construction of the nine or so other treehouses, thatNelson is anxious to build on the property, is on hold pending the county's decision. Because the majority of his land is within the set-back area, he won't realize his treehouse-utopia dreams unless he can get the exemption. Nelson said giving up on the projects would be a shame for not only him, whose financial future is tied up in the property, but also for the community.

"If I can do these kinds of structures, I think it can be a benefit to the area, and a benefit to those who get to enjoy them, and a point of pride for Fall City," he said.

The center is already a magnet for wannabe treehouse builders, who come from all over for workshops on design, carpentry, and the biology of trees. In October, TreeHouse Point will host a convention for builders from around the world.

Nelson hopes his site will also become an environmental education center.

"We're applying for grants to start putting together curriculum for high school visits," he said.

He thinks his treehouses will hook students, and inspire them to learn more about nature.

"Ninety percent of the population just digs treehouses," he said. "You tell the guys at the high school that we're going to go to the treehouse place, and they say, 'I'm in,' whereas, if you tell them they're going to the nature reserve" they might not be so enthusiastic.

Another vision close to Nelson's heart is giving people in wheelchairs access to what he called the "extremely exclusive club of treehouses." He got the idea from a Vermont builder who made a DVD about wheelchair-accessible houses.

"It was incredible: these kids in wheelchairs that no way have ever been close to a treehouse are rolling out onto these platforms, some of them just squealing with delight," Nelson said.

He is itching to move forward with his plans for similar treehouses, and already has a spot picked out for one.

"The topography works where wheelchairs can come through here, and then zip out onto the platform of a treehouse and all of a sudden be 20 feet in the air," he said. "That's a pretty powerful thing, just to be able to be around a tree like that."

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