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Family battles town to build wheelchair-accessible treehouse

Paula and Mike Nestor with their son Brandon, who has cerebral palsy.
Paula and Mike Nestor with their son Brandon, who has cerebral palsy.Matthew Cavanaugh/For the Boston Globe

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Brandon Nestor and his father, Mike, have dreamed of a treetop getaway for years,a promise of wheelchair access to the sky. What began a decade ago as a pencil sketch on a scrap of paper, now tucked into Mike’s wallet, has evolved into an elaborate series of blueprints. They depict a miniature Colonial up among 75-foot-tall hickory trees, a ramp extending off the back deck connecting the two worlds.

“He’s picturing being able to go out the French doors and have Amber [the family dog] follow him up the ramp right into the treehouse,” Mike Nestor said as Brandon, 16, who has cerebral palsy, lit up with a smile.

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At the moment, the plans remain two-dimensional. To begin building, they need a permit from the town, and zoning ordinances pose a significant hurdle. In a debate that began last fall, West Springfield officials have said the proposed treehouse is too large, too tall, and too close to property lines. Turned down twice, by the building department and the zoning board of appeals, the family filed suit against the town in June.

There are hints of hope for the project — signs that when a whole community rallies behind one boy’s dream, even town bureaucracy may not be enough to deny it. The issue currently sits before the Hampden Superior Court, but the family’s lawyer is speaking with the town, and both sides seem optimistic they can reach an agreement.

A sign of support for Brandon’s wheelchair-accessible treehouse.
A sign of support for Brandon’s wheelchair-accessible treehouse. Matthew Cavanaugh/For the Boston Globe

This summer, a number of neighbors threw their weight behind the Nestors’ treehouse plan. Some displayed colorful yard signs that read “Treehouse for Brandon.” One neighbor, Natalie McCauley, started a Facebook page to raise awareness, and word spread. Mike Nestor and his wife, Paula, both 51, said they have been overwhelmed by support: old friends, acquaintances, and even strangers reaching out to ask what they can do.

The debate, framed by zoning technicalities, has focused largely on the structure’s size, and particularly its height, which in the revised version has a peak that rises about 23 feet above the first floor of the family’s house.

“When you want a variance, which is really an exception to those rules, you have to make sure you take everyone into consideration,” said West Springfield lawyer William Reichelt. “There’s abutting property owners on both sides, and it will set a precedent for the rest of the town.”

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According to town code, accessory structures cannot be taller than the main house, and larger ones cannot be too near the edge of a yard. Including the ramp, town officials calculated the structure to exceed 600 square feet.

But the family claims the structure’s size is necessary to accommodate Brandon’s motorized wheelchair and medical equipment, some of which will be stored in a second-story loft, and that the location is the yard’s only viable option, given space required for a ramp.

In its complaint against the town, the family alleges that the town has “disregarded its responsibility under applicable federal law to [ensure] that disabled persons are not subjected to discrimination,” according to a copy of the document provided by Joseph Conway, the family’s lawyer. Conway said he believes the town has denied Brandon reasonable accommodations, violating the Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. But he is hopeful the issue will be resolved before it goes to trial.

Reichelt seems to be on the same page. While the town must always consider the precedent such decisions can set, he said, “this is a case where everyone is generally in favor in granting the variance.”

“We are working on it and we are going to get him his treehouse,” Reichelt said. “I promise.”

It’s a dream that dates to 2005, when the Nestor family moved into the house on Havenhurst Road from elsewhere in the neighborhood, its one level providing an easier floorplan for Brandon to navigate. Mike Nestor saw the clearing encircled by hickory trees and was immediately struck, he said, by its potential as the perfect venue for a backyard clubhouse.

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For Brandon, that means something grander than the flimsy treehouse his father recalls from his own Wilbraham backyard growing up — a few 2 x 4s nailed to an oak tree, probably the doing of his older brother. Mike Nestor, who has worked in architecture for 26 years, has spent many a night at the kitchen table perfecting plans for Brandon’s perch. A freestanding structure that sits 16 feet off the ground, the design features a spruce tree poking up through the deck. It will have two doors and windows overlooking the woods.

“This would really be a life-changing thing,” said Mike Nestor, on the planned treehouse for his son Brandon, who has cerebral palsy.
“This would really be a life-changing thing,” said Mike Nestor, on the planned treehouse for his son Brandon, who has cerebral palsy. Matthew Cavanaugh/For the Boston Globe

Brandon’s treehouse is inspired, in part, by other such buildings in the region. The family has visited two wheelchair accessible treehouses: at a deserted camp in Burlington, Vt., and at the Heritage Museums and Gardens, in Sandwich, the latter a surprise they stumbled across.

Brandon Nestor has always loved to explore. When he first got his power chair, his preschool teachers set up cones for him to zip around, and a classmate asked if she and the other students would get a turn too. Now he zooms around the neighborhood, challenging his grandfather to keep up on his bicycle, and does laps around the indoor track at West Springfield High School, where he will be a sophomore.

A fan of polka music and cars, Brandon is naturally outgoing, his mother said, recalling how elementary school classmates used to call him “the mayor.”

“There’s a long list of things he can do. There’s also a long list of things he probably couldn’t participate in,” Mike Nestor said of his son. “And this would really be a life-changing thing, for him to have a place where he can go and hang out and observe nature.”

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Plans for Brandon’s treehouse.
Plans for Brandon’s treehouse.Matthew Cavanaugh/For the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at stephanie.mcfeeters@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mcfeeters.