Family Fights to Save $16K, 3-Story Tree House Built in Memory of Late Father

Joni Doherty and her sons built it after her husband passed away two years ago.

— -- A family from Rossmoor, California, is fighting to save a three-story tree house they built in front of their home in memory of their dad, who recently passed away in a surfing accident.

Joni Doherty told ABC News that the tree house, which cost over $16,000 to build, was completed in 2014, about a year after her husband, Jack Chen, was "killed in a tragic surfing accident" in March of 2013. He was only 39.

Her two young sons, Andrew Chen, 13, and Nicholas Chen, 11, kept pestering her to follow through with previous plans they and their father had made to build a tree house in the big tree in front of their home as a family project.

Though Doherty, 37, believes they had the commemorative tree house built to code, she received a "Notice of Violation" in the mail from Orange County this past March.

"My heart sank," Doherty said. "I felt really sad. I lost a little bit of sleep worrying about it and thinking we might have to tear it down."

The Orange County Executive Office sent a copy of the notice to ABC News. The notice said that if she did not obtain the proper permits and approvals, the structure "must be removed."

"Generally, tree houses and play houses that are less than 120 square feet and contain no utilities don't need a permit," Orange County public manager Jean Pasco told ABC News in a statement. "However, this tree house clearly exceeds that, as well as encroaches into the front property line setback and exceeds the height limit for accessory structures."

Doherty will have to pay a deposit fee of $5,000 for the permit application, and the money will fund the necessary inspections, notifications and public hearing process, Pasco said.

Doherty said she is currently working with her district's supervisor, Michelle Steel, to obtain the proper permits and to rally community support for the upcoming public hearing to get approval for the tree house. A specific date for the public hearing has not yet been scheduled, Pasco said, explaining that Orange County code enforcement officers were still working with Doherty.

Meanwhile, Doherty said she has been overwhelmed with the support from her neighbors. An online petition Doherty created with her sons to save their memorial tree house had garnered more than 3,500 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

A public information officer for 2nd District Supervisor Michelle Steel also told ABC News that Steel's office will also be working to review the county's rules about tree house building to make sure they are fair.

"Building tree houses is something parents do with their children to create happy memories," Steel's public information officer Arie Dana said. "It should be something enjoyed, not a headache."

Doherty said that the three-story tree house is more than just a memorial, but a place of gathering for her two sons and their neighbors.

"We decorate it during Halloween and put lights up for Christmas," Doherty said. "Our neighbors tell us when they pass by that they love it, and we know Jack would have loved it, too."