[deck]A treetop resort in Takilma, Oregon offers an unconventional place for rest and relaxation.[/deck]
At the foot of the Siskiyou Mountains, perched in spaces more appropriately occupied by birds’ nests, eighteen cozy, wood-crafted treehouses rest soundly on the branches of conifers.
Tucked between two sturdy limbs, fifteen feet above the ground, a couple emerges from a quaint hideaway. Eager, they descend from their arbor home away from home. The rickety suspension bridge connecting some of the treehouses creaks with each step they take until they reach ground level, making their way toward the canopy zipline course to conquer their mutual fear of heights.
As a child, Michael Garnier never had a treehouse in his backyard. The same cannot be said for his children. More than twenty years ago, Garnier turned his childhood dream of owning a Swiss Family Robinson-inspired estate into reality and converted his land near Takilma, Oregon, where California meets Oregon, into one of Oregon’s most controversial and talked about properties. Today, Garnier’s company Out’n’About Treehouse Treesort has the world’s highest concentration of treehouses per square mile, according to Inhabitat.com.
Out’n’About wasn’t always a treehouse resort. Originally, it was a bed and breakfast operating out of a single cabin. To Garnier’s dismay, the conventional bed and breakfast never caught on. It was then he realized that in order to succeed in the hospitality industry he would need try something different. He decided to capture the market for young at heart adults and elevated his bed and breakfast with treehouses.
“Everybody thought I was crazy, but I built it, people started coming, and my money came back to me,” says Garnier.
Drawing from his engineering education and passion for nature, Garnier constructed the Peacock Perch, his first treehouse, in the summer of 1990. Expansion followed quickly and Garnier found himself building about one treehouse per year to satisfy high demand. But his success drew an equal amount of criticism.
Garnier has encountered his fair share of adversity building and managing his treehouse complex during his twenty-year career. His fight with the Josephine County Planning Department is one of legendary proportions. For more than ten years, Garnier has battled Josephine County for the right to run his business. At times, the tense conflict between the two parties has resulted in name-calling. Garnier refers to the three Josephine County Commissioners who repeatedly denied his application for a building permit—as the “Tree Stooges.” Due to what Garnier refers to as, “legaliTrees,” a Cease-and-Desist order, and difficulties obtaining permits for development, Garnier’s concept almost never got off the ground.
Shortly after opening his Treesort to the public, the Josephine County Planning Department threatened to tear down Garnier’s treehouses due to potential safety risks and Garnier’s failure to acquire the proper permits. He was faced with a choice: stop renting his treehouses to guests or get rid of them.
While Garnier wished to continue running his unique business, he was also determined to prove the fortitude of his patented treehouse construction tool, the “Garnier Limb,” a bolt capable of supporting up to eight thousand pounds. The tool was designed by Garnier and engineer Charles Greenwood after seeking a stronger bolt at the first World Treehouse Conference, hosted at Out’n’About in 1997.
The treesort was confident it had discovered the key to sustainable treehouse engineering, but needed a way to prove its treehouses were up to code.
After receiving the devastating news from the “Tree Stooges,” Out’n’About employees then rounded up supporters, hosted a treetop party, and made a statement. Guests included sixty-six people, two dogs, and one cat—weighed in at a total of 10,847 pounds. County Commissioners were not impressed and insisted on toppling the Treesort.
Rather than give up, Garnier found a different way around the Josephine County restrictions by exploiting a loophole in the county laws. Josephine County strictly forbids profiting off non-permitted structures, but the law says nothing about offering a friend a free place to stay.
“Kids have treehouses across the state and [officials] don’t order them to tear them down,” Garnier says. “Technically, the only guests that could stay had to be my friends and I wasn’t allowed to charge as if I were a hotel.”
In the years of the dispute between 1990 and 1998, Garnier instituted a new rule for renting rooms. Guests first had to become Garnier’s friends or, as he dubbed them, “Treemusketeers” by reciting a pledge, before venturing into the canopy: “I pledge to do all my power to help protect treehouses and trees. So it’s all for trees and trees for all.” Likewise, in order to continue making a profit, Out’n’About began selling “Treeshirts,” to overnight guests in lieu of payment, beginning in 1994. For between sixty and eighty dollars, guests received a place to sleep as well as a custom-made “Treeshirt,” signed by Garnier himself. According to the Out’n’About’s website, “While the county may be able to stop [Garnier] from renting the Treehouses, he can “still sell shirts . . . they’re just gonna cost a lot more.” As far as the local government legally knew, guests at Out’n’About were Garnier’s friends and the only thing they were paying for was an expensive shirt.
For many years, the Treesort continued to operate under this scheme, until, with the help of Greenwood, Garnier was able to bring five of his treehouses up to legal code. In 1998, County inspectors confirmed the structural integrity of Out’n’About’s treehouses, providing Garnier with the means to obtain the proper permits. After an almost nine-year struggle with Josephine County and the “Tree Stooges,” the dueling forces had seemingly settled their differences.
But Out’n’About’s truce with the local government did not last long. In 2008, a couple staying at the Treesort fell from a broken handrail on the property. Garnier estimates the couple fell approximately seven feet, but documents from the lawsuit filed by the couple following the accident claim they fell fifteen feet from one of Garnier’s treehouses. The couple’s lawsuit sought compensation for injuries to their spines, wrists, brains, and ribs, as well as for emotional distress.
Garnier says the plaintiffs were “horsing around” and caused the rail to break. However, in an ironic turn of events, the County Commissioners that previously denied Garnier’s applications for building permits were the ones held responsible for the accident. Because his property is located on what the County considers resource land, Commissioners are legally permitted to only allowing five structures to function under permits due to restrictions, Garnier doesn’t qualify for non-consumptive use of resource property because he shares his land with a forest that doesn’t belong to him.
According to documents from the lawsuit, the prosecution argued that County Commissioners failed to conduct a complete inspection of the Treesort, disregarded policy by failing to insist on the removal of non-permitted structures, and did not account for guests’ absolute safety. Brought into question throughout the debacle was whether the County Commissioners, who provided the Treesort with five permits, were aware that Garnier had indeed expanded to more than five treehouses. The official court report stated, “The plaintiffs argue the County knew of Treesort code violations because of numerous Health Department inspections.”
The county, plaintiffs, and Garnier scuffled over who was at fault for the accident, but ultimately the case was settled in 2011. Legally, it was the County’s responsibility to enforce their permit policies, yet according to court documents, the County Commissioners failed to monitor whether Garnier was renting more treehouses than the five he technically had protected by permits. The couple were awarded $1.2 million from Josephine County due to a faulty inspection led by the Treesort’s long-time nemeses, the “Tree Stooges.”
Since the lawsuit, things have settled down at Out’n’About. Of course, the novelty bed and breakfast must be more cautious than before. Maintenance is a bigger priority and Garnier instructs his staff on the importance of routinely performing inspections on each treehouse. Guests are also required to sign a waiver before climbing into the treehouses, which clearly states the Treesort cannot be subject to the “legaliTrees” that have tormented them in the past.
“Hopefully people are smart enough not to be screwing around in high places,” Garnier says.
Thanks to promotion by the Travel Channel, People Magazine, and local and national print coverage, Out’n’About has made a name for itself as one of the Pacific Northwest’s top boutique hotels.
Today the Treesort offers eighteen different treehouses, an extensive canopy zipline course, a “Tarzan” swing, a fresh water swimming pool, horseback rides, full breakfast, and a Treehouse Institute, where guests learn the engineering involved in treehouse construction. Unlike the traditional children’s treehouse, many of Out’n’About’s treehouses have functional plumbing so guests can stay clean while sleeping in the forest canopy. Garnier thinks of his Treesort as a glorified camper’s paradise.
Loincloths are optional, but one must possess a Tarzan-like enthusiasm for nature to enjoy sleeping at this Treesort.
“This place is not the Ramada Inn,” says Garnier. “It’s one of the most comfortable places in the world to stay in a tree, but it’s not the pluff and fluff you’d get at an ordinary hotel.”
Customer service is also a priority to Garnier and his staff. In fact, overnight visitors are required to stay more than one night in the summer season because the Treesort wants to instill a sense of community and camaraderie among those who stay there.
“When you stay at an average motel you don’t typically meet anybody,” Garnier says. “It’s a lot more personal here and people become friends through their common interests.”
Despite only having five of the required eighteen total permits for his treehouses, Garnier continues to manage his Treesort and has no plans to stop expanding.
Unless Josephine County takes any further action to clear-cut Garnier’s concept, Out’n’About will remain a popular place where tree-huggers and thrill-seekers converge. “This whole place is kind of an experiment in the symbiotics between trees, people, and houses,” says Garnier. “These treehouses are for kids of all ages and you don’t have to be young to enjoy [them].”