MIAMI - For a quarter century, Shawnee Chasser has lived in a treehouse not far from downtown Miami. The 65-year-old grandmother who once protested the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons says she hates the oppressive feeling of walls and air conditioning, loves the open breeze and relishes the connection to nature in lush, tropical surroundings.
Not long ago, Miami-Dade County code inspectors discovered the treehouse, declared it unfit for human habitation and ordered it torn down. Now Chasser is fighting to keep her arboreal home, which is two stories, with a sink with running water, a stove, a refrigerator, a computer and a television. It’s also home to her dogs, cats and a pet raccoon named Mary J. Blige.
It looks more like something out of Swiss Family Robinson than a simple child’s retreat.
Chasser, who noted her protest history, said she won’t give up easily. She has attorneys and an architect working with her for free on possible solutions and is holding a November fundraiser to pay the bills.
“I’m not leaving. I haven’t slept indoors in 25 years. It’s just who I am,” Chasser said, her flowing hair streaked with purple. “I don’t want them telling me what my happiness is because I don’t fit in one of their boxes.”
County inspectors are not backing down. They found the treehouse’s construction to be substandard and with improper and possibly hazardous electricity and plumbing. The county’s Unsafe Structures Panel ordered it demolished within a few months unless it is brought up to code.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that must be corrected for the safety of the residents and neighbors,” county officials said in a statement.
Ari Bargil, a lawyer looking into Chasser’s case, said the county code has plenty of space for structures beyond a traditional home, such as servants’ quarters or a guesthouse. Bargil said the county is being overzealous for ordering the treehouse’s destruction.
“Shawnee’s treehouse is a peaceful, harmless structure that hurts nobody,” said Bargil, who works for the nonprofit Institute for Justice law firm that advocates for private property rights. “The county’s only concern should be whether her treehouse is safe. Instead, they are imposing an ill-fitting regulatory framework on her, and thus essentially fining her for being different.”
Chasser has lived in her current treehouse for a decade. Before that, she lived for 15 years in another one on property owned by her brother in nearby Little Haiti after deciding she did not like air conditioning and would rather live in the fresh air.
The current dwelling is on land that was owned by her son, who built the treehouse but died in 2009. The lot features a traditional house, large pond with a waterfall where Chasser can bathe, tropical foliage, a grass-roofed tiki hut, and fanciful signs such as “Please Do Not Feed the Fears” and “Be Here Now Street.”
The treehouse is nestled in a large banyan tree. The open-air ground floor includes the kitchen and a small living area lined with books and photos and a desk. Just outside, winding wooden stairs lined with a string of purple lights lead to a small open air bedroom.
Chasser said she would probably evacuate if a hurricane threatened but not much else would force her to leave. The main house on the property has bathrooms she can use and a sleeping area for her if needed.
For 40 years, Chasser has made, at a nearby facility, and marketed Shawnee’s Green Thumb Popcorn, which is organic and gluten-free and which she currently sells to Whole Foods - “hippie cheese,” she calls it. She supplemented that income by renting out her son’s former house and allowing campers to use the property.
But things went bad.
A disgruntled former tenant complained to county officials about the campers. Inspectors came about a year ago, she said, and found the treehouse and several other code violations.
“Every time they come I get new violations,” she said, adding she feels intimidated about standing up to the powerful government.
County officials declined further comment beyond their statement because Chasser is appealing the decision and could take the matter to court. But it won’t be easy for her to win and keep the treehouse in its current form.
According to county documents, the area is zoned for single-family houses only. A secondary structure with areas for cooking and sleeping would require a zoning variance, even if it meets building codes. The variance would have to be considered by the county after a public hearing.
Recently, Chasser met with a psychologist in an effort to be declared claustrophobic and unable to live indoors. It’s not clear how much construction upgrades might cost.
Still, Chasser remains hopeful a solution can be found. On a recent visit, Chasser did an interview in a gentle rain shower from the lower part of her treehouse as her raccoon scampered about.
“I absolutely love storms up there. In the last 10 years there has been wonderful lightning and thunder. I just embrace it all,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing. I need to know I can touch the rain.”
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