Dan Rattiner's Stories

Tree House: Lawyers and Neighbors and Children in Sag Harbor

The Village of Sag Harbor thrived as a whaling port for about 170 years ago, and at that time much of the downtown was built with narrow and crooked streets and small houses on close-together lots, sometimes with buildings of one kind or another right on a neighbor’s property line.

This makes for an undeniably adorable little village, but it can also result in some very unusual neighborly encounters. One such encounter, still ongoing, was told to me by my daughter, who lives in one of those houses with her husband, Kevin, her daughter, age 12, and her son, Rhone, who is 10.

There is a one-car garage on the property attached to the main house, the far wall of which sits less than an inch from her property line. The main house is a two-story affair. The garage is one story with a flat roof.

About two years ago, my daughter began talking with the neighbor to the south about building a treehouse in the big maple tree on the neighbor’s property that overhangs my daughter’s garage. The neighbors were very agreeable to this. They had a 13-year-old son at the time and thought he might like it, too.

However, time passed and the project never happened. Then the neighbors lost their jobs and put their house on the market.

“When are we gonna build the treehouse?” my grandson wanted to know.

New neighbors moved in, a pair of lawyers with offices in Riverhead, and of course my daughter and her husband went over to welcome them to the community. In the course of things, they brought up the idea of the treehouse. The couple has no children, but they saw no problem with this.

Two days later, my daughter received a six-page legal document in the mail from the neighbors.

“I had no idea what this would be,” she told me. “Turned out to be a document they wanted signed by us and by whoever was going to build the treehouse, affirming that there was insurance for the construction and that if anything happened on their property we would hold them harmless and take all responsibility.”

My daughter has a handyman she uses for various projects, and he had told her he would build the treehouse when the time came. And so she asked him if he had insurance, and he said he didn’t. But he said he’d be happy to sign anything.

As for the holding harmless part, she thought she ought to show this to her cousin Hildy, who is a very sharp lawyer, before signing.

“Hildy looked at it. And she called me. ‘This is very badly written, for a lawyer,’ she said. ‘Also, what’s in it for you?’

“I said we get a treehouse, but she said, other than that. ‘This says that for now and in perpetuity if any of your kids or future kids step on their property and get harmed or injured there, then you will hold them harmless for that.’

“So I asked her, This says that if they bang their heads and go unconscious in their living room, they could just let them lay there? They wouldn’t even have to call you or an ambulance or even a doctor? Not their problem?”

“‘For liability, yes,’ she told me. ‘Though there are other laws to be considered, of course.’

“I couldn’t believe it. I tried other examples. This would be like the mailman or a refrigerator repair man were injured in their house, they wouldn’t be responsible? I asked.

“‘The refrigerator man,’ she said, ‘but not the mailman. The mailman doesn’t cross the threshold.’

“Oh.”

“So Hildy said she’d mirror this. ‘If they go on your property, they hold you harmless forever.’”

“Okay.”

“So we sent it back with that and asked them to review the changes we made, and it was during this time that Wilbur, the handyman, said he would have time to build the treehouse in about two weeks, but then he had a job that would last six months after that and couldn’t do it. I called the neighbors to try to settle this quickly. I left a message. But got no reply.

“And so then I got this idea that maybe we could build a treehouse not in the tree, but on a wooden platform, right on the garage. The branches of the tree were overhead. But we wouldn’t have to touch them. Wouldn’t even have to involve the neighbor. But then I learned I was wrong about that. The handyman would have to be on the neighbors’ property for 15 minutes.”

Here was the problem. The treehouse would sit on a platform on the roof. But to keep it steady, several two-by-fours, attached to the side of the treehouse, would drop down vertically and overhang the outside of the garage, so they could be screwed into the outside of the garage wall. He’d need permission for 15 minutes on the neighbor’s property to screw them in.

“I called them and explained this. They said they’d get back to me, but they didn’t. So then the treehouse got built, and the handyman said he’d figured out a way to do it without going on the neighbors’ property.

He tied the ladder to the roof of the treehouse, dropped it down five feet — it wouldn’t touch the ground — and then climbed down it. And while hovering over their property, on their air rights, so to speak, he had screwed in the brace. Then he had climbed back up and pulled up the ladder behind him.

“So now it would not be necessary to get permission,” my daughter said. “So I thought to call them to tell them never mind, and in the course of that call I spilled the beans. We had hovered. We’d used their air rights. Nothing had gone wrong, however. It was done.”

“What did they say?”

“What could they say? I did tell them they would be welcome to come by and go up in our rooftop little tree house if they wanted. Anytime.”

“Two lawyers?”

“Yes. Dad, do you think the Village would mind I built the tree house up there? You really can’t see it from the road, sort of. The tree is in the way.”

“Can you stand up in it?”

“No. But you can crawl in and sit on pillows in it.”

“How do you get up to it?”

“You crawl out the window from Joel’s room. Or you climb up the ladder from the back of the garage, near where the ducks and chickens live.”

My daughter has three ducks and one chicken the kids feed. There are also two dogs, a parrot and a cat. There’s a lotta life in that little house.

“Can it be removed from the roof?”

“Oh sure. You don’t put nails or screws through a roof. It’s just attached at the sides, as I said. So you would just unscrew it and take it off.”

“It’s furniture,” I said. “No problem.”

“Okay,” she said. “Thanks, dad.”

“And tell your new neighbors I said, hello.”

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