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Four-story treehouse, discord rise in Worcester neighborhood

Structure ordered torn down by city

Michael Chapman has until Nov. 2 to take down the treehouse he recently built in his yard, or face a fine of $300 a day. Michael Chapman has until Nov. 2 to take down the treehouse he recently built in his yard, or face a fine of $300 a day. (Jim Collins/ Worcester Telegram &Amp; Gazette)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 20, 2009

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WORCESTER - Spiraling around the old oak tree are more than a ton of pressure-treated lumber, some 500 lag screws and nuts, 1,000 feet of jute rope, and 48 feet of rebar.

Atop it all, about 50 feet in the air amid large, golden leaves, sits a copper squirrel fixed on a patina-covered weathervane.

The elaborately designed, four-platform treehouse cost Michael Chapman about $12,000 and just about every waking hour of the past three months. It was a work of love, a childhood dream come true, he said.

Now, after a city inspection and complaints from neighbors - one neighbor allegedly threatened to kill him - his lair in the sky must come down.

“It came out bigger and more conspicuous than I expected, and I’m saddened by the controversy,’’ said Chapman, 48, a botanist. “If I had done it over again, I would have tried to be more detailed in my pre-negotiations with my neighbors. But hindsight is 20-20.’’

When his neighbors in the large homes here on the West Side of Worcester began to hear the clatter of construction in his yard in August - the initial stage of what would become a series of spiral staircases, ladders, and catwalks - they watched with a mix of awe and dread.

Rudy Cepko, who lives next door, where the tree’s branches stretch over his property, didn’t recognize what was happening until Chapman and several of his friends began working on the second stage, a perch they call the “Pope’s Platform,’’ because it “would make a nice place to issue proclamations.’’

Cepko and others asked them to scale back the project, but his neighbor of about nine years refused, Cepko said.

At one point, the tension thickened so much that Cepko threatened to burn down the treehouse, with Chapman on it, Chapman said.

“I really feel unfortunate that things had to come to this,’’ Cepko said, noting the neighbors used to be friends. “We tried to offer him any type of compromise. It didn’t have to be so high. He wouldn’t listen.’’

Cepko and others complained to city officials that the treehouse was unsafe, that it threatened the tree, that it violated local zoning laws. Cepko said it had nothing to do with his property value and declined to comment on the alleged threats.

“He can say whatever he wants,’’ Cepko said. “If there was a death threat, the police should have been involved. It’s just really goofy.’’

Chapman said he didn’t want to discuss his conversations with neighbors. “All I’ll say is he threatened me with arson, and he threatened to kill me,’’ he said. “I don’t want to attack him.’’

But by that point the city had become involved.

After receiving complaints in September, officials from Worcester’s Department of Inspectional Services visited Chapman’s property and determined the treehouse violated city ordinances because it was higher than 15 feet and within 5 feet of the property line.

“The real issue was privacy,’’ said Joe Mikielian, commissioner of the city’s Department of Inspectional Services. “One neighbor was concerned about him going up with binoculars and seeing into other houses.’’

Mikielian said he worried that the treehouse would be “an attractive nuisance,’’ like a swimming pool without a fence. “It’s a danger to the neighborhood, and it could invite kids to hurt themselves,’’ he said.

So his department ordered Chapman to remove the tree house by Nov. 2. If he doesn’t, the city could fine him up to $300 a day.

Yesterday, Chapman took reporters on a tour of his creation, which is sturdy enough to support several adults at one time. As acorns rained down from the higher branches, Chapman said he will not appeal Mikielian’s order.

He compared the time that he has left with his treehouse - he did this for himself (he has no children) - to a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in which time suddenly slows as the protagonist faces a firing squad. Like the character in the story, he gets to complete his work of art.

“It’s the act of creation, not the ownership that matters,’’ he said. “I’m never truly happy unless I’m making something.’’

In recent days Chapman has added some finishing touches, including a wooden box to store books, special lounge chairs, and a heart-shaped plaque that reads “Heart of Oak.’’

“I have no regrets about doing this,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.