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Hacked Accounts and Improper Notices: The Saga of the Capitol Hill Treehouse Heads to Court

by Nena Perry-Brown

The treehouse at 516 Archibald Walk SE.

Two years ago, a Capitol Hill treehouse made headlines with its questionable legality. Now, although the treehouse is still intact and in use, its owners are suing the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) based on accusations that, among other things, the agency’s officials hacked into their account to falsify documents.

In September 2015, Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, owners of 516 Archibald Walk SE (map), completed construction of a treehouse partially affixed to a mature elm tree and adjacent fence at the rear of their property. The structure and its 30 square-foot base partially jut into the public right of way, as does the tree box that houses the elm.

According to the suit, the couple had conferred with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs about whether any permits were needed for construction or use of such a structure, tacitly receiving the department’s approval. After completion of the treehouse, a neighbor began to complain and got the local ANC involved in questioning the structure’s legality, bringing DDOT in to make that determination.

As a result of the ensuing conversations with DDOT officials, the couple filed for  a public space use permit in November of that year; this is where things began to get messy. DDOT later required the couple to renew the permit, rejected the renewal, and sent a number of notices demanding the structure be dismantled, including several last year that were improperly addressed to a “Bing Lee”.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed against DDOT and agency officials Matthew Marcou and John Stokes by Psychas and Yee seeking damages, declatory judgment and injunctive relief in hopes of quelling all criticism of or actions against the structure. The suit alleges that the conflicting instructions and obstructive manner that DDOT went about handling their case constituted a violation of their right to due process.

More interestingly, the suit also alleges that on January 15, 2016, John Stokes hacked into the couple’s account in the Transportation Permitting Online System (TOPS) to submit documents against their will. “Hacking” in this context involves Stokes going into the account, changing the password to “Password1”, and filing applications as a “formality”, all alleged actions he explained to the couple via email on the day in question.

“Defendant Stokes’ hacking constituted an integral component of the agency’s unlawful scheme to deprive Plaintiffs and their two young daughters, then ages three and five years old, with the continued use and enjoyment of a tree house the family had built,” the suit asserts. The couple has reported this purported “hacking” to the FBI, DC Office of Inspector General, and the city’s Metropolitan Police Department. 

While no one would like to think that the city is engaged in a Scrooge-like conspiracy to keep children (many of whom visit during open houses the owners hold) from enjoying a treehouse, it seems doubtful that the suit will be settled out of court soon, as the documents allege that DDOT has refused the couple’s requests  to meet with a mediator —  a solution also recommended by the Office of Administrative Hearings, which has overseen intermittent litigation between the two parties.

See other articles related to: treehouse, capitol hill

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/hacked-accounts-and-improper-notices-the-saga-of-the-capitol-hill-treehouse/13455

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