"Everything here that looks nice, we built it," 8-year-old Cole Ingram says proudly.
"The place looked like a dump (before.) We planted the dogwoods, my mother's garden, the bamboo by the road."
Cole is talking about the 100-foot-wide wooded area just beyond the stream that runs through his backyard in Burleigh Manor.
For the past three years, it has been a magical place. There's a frog pond there and a "wild turkey, rabbits, turtles, snakes, and crayfish" -- just about everything an 8-year-old could hope for.
There are things that please adults, too -- bird feeders, a terraced walk through an ivy garden, a wooded bridge across a meandering creek, a log-lined path through the woods.
From her kitchen window, Cole's mother, Kitty Ingram, has a panoramic view of everything -- the wooden bridge, the frog pond, the dogwoods, the bamboo, the swings and the treehouse.
Ah yes, the swings and the treehouse -- not exactly what the county had in mind for the property.
The swings, which are in a clearing just to the left of the log-lined path, are state of the art. They are the envy of any Columbia Association tot-lot -- a place where mothers can watch their children and commune with nature at the same time.
The treehouse is what Cole loves. He built it three years agowith his mother, his friend, Michael, and his grandfather. He says his grandfather flew up from Louisiana just for the occasion. The treehouse is built on a planked deck surrounding, but not touching four towering trees. "No nails," Cole points out.
Large enough for six adults to sit comfortably, the treehouse has a wide-arched entrance. Inside, two benches face each other from a distance of about eight feet. Large windows provide views in all directions -- which makes it just about ideal for a snowball fight.
In the winter, "we take turns," one snowball army on the ground, another on top, Cole says. In thesummer, he and his friends spend part of every day in the treehouse escaping from the heat or just talking about stuff they have seen in the woods or discovered along the stream bed.
At least they used to.
County officials told Cole's parents last week to tear down thetreehouse and remove the swing set immediately because the 3-year-old "structures" are sitting on a narrow, block-long strip of wooded open space in Burleigh Manor. The land must be clear before the developer can cede it to the county as required under a developer's agreement, officials say.
Cole's mother says that although he was "devastated" by the news, she knows she has no choice but to do what the county tells her. The person who gave her the news "is such a nice fellow, so polite it makes it even harder," she says.
She says she and her husband, Don, knew from the beginning that they were building on land that was not theirs -- only they thought they were doing it with permission.
Their property in the backyard runs down a steep slope, crosses a stream and penetrates about three feet of woodlands to where the county property begins. The county property continues about 100 feet to an above-ground utility line and an asphalt pathway.
When the family moved in, they were told to "treat (the wooded open space) just like our own backyard because some of the lots are not as large as they were supposed to be and this would make up for the additional land," Cole's mother says. She agrees with Cole that the area "was a mess" when they moved in.
So the family planted dogwoods, a garden and bamboo. They cleared pathways, lined them with logs, and built the treehouse and swing set on the edge of their property."
"We knew it was not our land, but we never thought it was a problem," Cole's mother says. Once she discovered it was, she and her husband wrote County Council member Darrel Drown, R-2nd, to tell him of their dilemma.
At the bottom of their letter, Cole printed a note of his own: "Please do not tear down my tree house."
The Ingrams offered five possible solutions: provide the county a liability policy for the treehouse and the swing set, lease the land from the county and provide a liability policy for it, have the county cede them the land, donate the play equipment to the county parks and recreation department or purchase the land outright.
Drown passed the Ingrams' suggestions along, but none were accepted. The liability issue is too great,and the Burleigh Manor open space is no different from 1,000 other small strips separating cul-de-sacs throughout the county, officials say. If an exception were made there, it would have to be made everywhere.
"It's sort of unfortunate because (the treehouse and the swing set) were a boon to everyone in the neighborhood," Drown says. "It's a shame society has become so litigious that we can't allow these things to happen."
As for 8-year-old Cole, he says he "doesn't knowmuch" about why the county is forcing his family to tear down his treehouse -- except for what his parents have told him: "If one of my friends falls and hurts himself, he can sue the county."