Shawnee Chasser found a higher standard of living 25 years ago when she moved into a tree house.
Now, she has to come down.
A claustrophobic flower child with purple streaks in her graying curls, Chasser has spent the last year fighting Miami-Dade County over the fate of the wood cottage where she lives, nestled against the forked trunks of an oak and strangler fig in the wooded front yard of her late son’s Biscayne Gardens home.
To Chasser, it’s a suburban Eden preferable to the walls, windows and air conditioning of a house.
But the county says the open-air chateau was built illegally, is unsafe and must be demolished in the next four months. Chasser — who once marched from California to D.C. as part of an anti-nuclear arms protest — says that will never happen, setting up an only-in-Miami showdown between a $7 billion government and a 65-year-old grandmother who sells bags of organic popcorn at Whole Foods.
“I’m not taking down anything,” Chasser vowed during an interview. “I’ll chain myself to that tree house.”
Chasser, who discovered her aversion to indoor living decades ago, has slept in a tree since 1992 after she moved her family back to Miami from California. Her brother, Ray Chasser, built her first abode at the Earth N’ Us farm in Little Haiti, where he mounted a shanty on telephone polls and wrapped it around a pithecellobium tree.
Chasser later moved to her son’s home on the corner of Northwest 135th Street near North Miami and commissioned a new cottage with curved wooden steps leading around the trees to a second story just large enough to fit a double bed. The ground floor includes a kitchenette stocked with a mini oven and sink, and a tiny, circular living room cooled by a Home Depot ceiling fan. There are family pictures everywhere, books above a desk, and a small couch where a 2-month-old raccoon named “Coonie” sometimes stretches out lazily.
Chasser, who walks around barefoot, says there’s no better way to live.
“When I am up in my tree house in thunder, lightning and rain, I am in heaven,” Chasser said. “There’s nothing nicer, more spiritual, more wonderful.”
The cottage, which can’t be seen from the street, is off to the south side of “Shawnee’s Paradise,” on the corner of Be Here Now Street and Joshua’s Way, an ode to her late son, who died inside his house in 2009 of a heart attack. The property — recently featured by the Tiny House Giant Journey travel blog — is just under a half-acre of wooded lawn stretched around a man-made pond and waterfall and hiding from its surroundings behind a hedge.
The home belongs to a land trust run by Chasser’s daughter. Chasser makes the property available to tenants who want to rent rooms, a mini-camper, or even set up tents in the front yard. It’s partly about sharing her simple life, but it helps her pay the bills too, along with proceeds from Shawnee’s Greenthumb Popcorn, which she mass-produces and sells in Whole Foods stores around Florida.
But everything changed about a year ago, when someone called 311 to complain that Chasser was running the property like an apartment complex and campground in the middle of a single-family neighborhood. Chasser, who says she’s tight with her neighbors, blames a booted tenant. But the unexpected visit from county code enforcement last September jarred her world.
She was issued a citation for illegally running a rooming house and for work conducted at the property without permits, including the pond, fountain, a chickee hut — and the tree house.
“This has got to be my first time ever of somebody living in a tree house,” said Ricardo Roig, Miami-Dade’s code enforcement division director and a 26-year county employee.
The county’s issue with Chasser’s abode isn’t specifically that she lives there, Roig said, but that it’s unsafe. Roig said South Florida has strict rules about building code because of the frequency of hurricanes, and added that running water and electricity have to be installed with permits and inspections. He said Chasser is welcome to live in a legal tree house, but code and unsafe-structure inspectors looked at the cottage and found it constructed in a way that it can’t be brought up to county standards. This week, the county’s unsafe structures board agreed and gave her three months to tear the tree house down.
Chasser, who has already paid $3,000 in fines, potentially faces more than $7,000 in additional liens, according to the county.
“They’re creating a campground out there. You just can’t go into a residential property and start charging outsiders to come in. We’ve got neighbors who we’ve got to protect their rights also,” Roig said. “It’s just a combination of situations that haven’t been well thought out.”
Chasser is incredulous. Her brother’s tree house in Miami is treated like a landmark and included in official marketing material from the county’s tourism bureau. It also survived Hurricane Andrew.
Chasser says she can’t afford to hire an engineer or architect to come help her bring her property up to code. Plus, even if she could, she said, the county tells her she would still have to apply to the zoning department for permission to inhabit the units outside the main home on the property.
But Chasser isn’t giving up. The county’s unsafe structures board allows for appeals and requests for additional hearings, and she said she’s talking with her attorney, Sheleen Khan, about all her options.
One non-starter: moving. Chasser notes that the bags that carry Shawnee’s Greenthumb Popcorn celebrate a certain unusual style of living, and she doesn’t want to be guilty of false advertising.
“It says on the back that I live in a tree house,” she said. “So I have to keep living in a tree house.”