Af­ter liv­ing in a tree­house for 25 years this Mi­ami woman is try­ing to save her leafy abode

7 Days in Dubai - - SPECIAL REPORT -

or 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 storeys, 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 neigh­bours,” county of­fi­cials said. 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 non-profit 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.

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.

Still, Chas­ser re­mains hope­ful a so­lu­tion can be found. On a re­cent visit, Chas­ser did an in­ter­view in a 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 favourite thing. I need to know I can touch the rain.”

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