Neighbours in treehouse dispute could benefit from mediation, lawyer says

Disputes between neighbours can be ugly, says a lawyer who believes mediation would help to resolve a complaint about a $30,000 backyard treehouse in Toronto.
The treehouse, at 108 square feet, looks ready to launch in a Bloor West Village backyard. It has spawned a complaint and may lead to municipal charges. (John Alpeza/Facebook)

Disputes between neighbours can be ugly, says a lawyer who believes mediation could help to resolve a complaint about a $30,000 backyard treehouse in Toronto.

Mitchell Rose, a Toronto lawyer and mediator with the firm Stancer, Gossin, Rose LLP, says mediation would encourage both families in the dispute to talk to each other. The city says the elaborate treehouse, in the shape of a boat, violates zoning bylaws.

"There's an old saying that a man's home is his castle, or in this case perhaps, his treehouse," Rose told Metro Morning on Thursday.

"In these situations, people feel very strongly about what they wish to do with their property. Of course, there are always competing interests. Not surprisingly, a neighbour has an issue because she probably believes that this interferes with her right to enjoy her land."

The city ordered John Alpeza to dismantle the treehouse, a 108-square-foot structure that sits atop a dead tree, after his next door neighbour complained in June 2014.

A city official said this week that Alpeza will be charged for violating zoning bylaws, that he failed to get the necessary permits before building the tree house and ignored notices to change its design.

Rose said the fight about the tree house is a classic neighbour dispute.

"It comes down to our sense of personal security. In our homes, we have a lot of investment, not just monetarily. It's our sanctuary really from the world. We spend a lot of time there. We probably put a lot of money into the home. It's where we live with our families, our kids, pets," he said.

Rose said neighbours fight about all kinds of structures in Toronto, everything from fences that are falling down to eavestroughs that extend over the property line. 

"What happens is we are so highly invested in our homes, that would include condos as well, that we feel we can what we want or should be able to do what we can," he said. "But other people may feel differently. They may feel threatened because of what you are doing with your property."

Mediation can resolve these disputes without going to the courts, he said. 

"People need to vent and have their story told by someone they believe to be impartial. People can have their day in court without all the risk and costs and other negative aspects of going to court," Rose said.

What are the real issues here?

Sometimes, he said a mediator cannot bring both parties together at first for a face-to-face meeting, but will try to encourage the parties to try to understand each other. A mediator will also try to determine the underlying issues.

"Is it really about a treehouse? Is really about light being blocked or privacy being invaded?" he asked.

"A lot of times, what mediators are doing is we are searching for some kind of accommodation. Is there is a way that these people can get along? If they going to continue to live next door to one another, they need a way of getting along because there may be future conflict," he said. "And mediation helps with that."

The treehouse stretches beyond the tree and overlooks the neighbour's backyard. 

It has all the features of a boat, with a hull, ship's wheel, bell and even an anchor. It's made of cedar, considered a superior material for building boats that go in the water.

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