Commission to take closer look at tree forts

A tree fort in the Bronkos' backyard in Naugatuck. The Zoning Commission ruled last month that the tree fort must come down because tree forts are not covered in the current zoning regulations. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — The tree fort in the woods behind Burgess Michael Bronko’s house on Fairfield Court is little more than a small, clean platform with low walls around it and a ladder leading into it.

Inside sits a chair on top of a recycling bin, and a cooler modeled after R2-D2, the famous “Star Wars” robot. A zip line is strung between the fort and a nearby tree.

The Zoning Commission last month told Bronko, a former mayor, and his wife Eileen, a former burgess, that tree forts were against regulations and that theirs had to be taken down. The Bronkos and their attorneys are considering whether to request a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“Clearly we’re not happy with the decision and we thought that we made a good attempt on behalf of all people with children in town, because the decision they made is not just for the Bronkos, it’s a decision for all people in town,” Eileen Bronko said. “Nobody should even look at putting up a tree fort for their children from now on, no matter how big the property is, I guess.”

Tree forts are not allowed under the borough’s zoning regulations simply because they are not addressed in the regulations. Borough attorneys advised the Zoning Commission that any item in question that is not covered by a regulation should be illegal, Chair Joseph Savarese said.

A possible remedy is to add tree forts to a list of things the regulations permit in residential back yards, including detached storage buildings, workshops and recreation rooms. That process would involve public hearings and meetings and would likely take two to three months, Savarese said.

Savarese said tree forts will be on the agenda at the commission’s Sept. 19 meeting and he expects the commission will hold hearings on adding tree forts and playgrounds to the regulations.

The commission voted last month that the current regulations should not be interpreted to include tree forts as a permitted structure, necessitating a change in the regulations if they are to be allowed. Commissioners noted Zoning Enforcement Office Steven Macary had ordered six tree forts taken down in as many years.

“By doing what we did we maintained that consistency without having any special favors,” Savarese said. “It’s fair to everybody.”

While the tree fort issue is being hashed out, the land use office will continue to order tree forts taken down if it receives complaints, Savarese said. The commission considered a moratorium on enforcement, but rejected it.

“If you do that, then somebody else comes up with a widget that’s not in the regulations, they want a moratorium,” Savarese said. “Then somebody comes up with a glass swimming pool that’s 500 feet high, they want a moratorium.”

For his part, Savarese said he has no problems with tree forts as long as they look nice and are set back from the street and other properties the way sheds and other structures are required to be.

“You need to have a standard there, but not tight where it needs to be commercially built,” Savarese said.

Michael Bronko, who owns a construction company, built the tree fort last year for his 11-year-old foster son Zachary, whom the Bronkos adopted two weeks ago. The Bronkos have until Sept. 22 to request an appeal or tear the tree fort down to avoid fines.

Zachary and another recently adopted Bronko child, 13-year-old Jesse, spend a lot of time in the fort, screened by the woods around them, Eileen Bronko said. The fort was a birthday present for Zachary, who has been upset and confused that it could be taken down, Eileen Bronko said.

“This is their getaway,” she said. “It’s great to have a getaway place as a kid.”