Play Money

Bruce McCaw girds for a Supreme Court battle—over his daughters' playhouse.

At 128 square feet, it's the smallest house in Medina, that forested Eastside enclave of money, power, and Range Rovers. It comes with a tiny kitchen, bunk beds, and a faux fireplace, a cultural and structural anomaly in the land of Bill Gates and 30,000-square-foot mega-mansions. Also out of the ordinary: Its sole occupants are small children—the spawn of telecommunications tycoon Bruce McCaw.

The little house on Groat Point has its own architect and team of attorneys. They've had their meters running for three years in an attempt to prove that McCaw's playhouse is not only culturally acceptable but protected by the Constitution, despite claims by the town and neighbors that it runs afoul of city land-use codes.

It's only a kiddie playhouse, and perhaps an illegal one at that. But to owner McCaw, it's a crusade—and neither time, money, nor the bounds of legal rhetoric can restrain him. Medina's zoning enforcement, he says, is depriving him "of the parental right to provide toys for his children." This is an argument that, having failed to persuade two judges so far, may have to be decided by nine more—in the state Supreme Court, no less.

A billionaire sportsman and car collector, the 58-year-old McCaw is the eldest of three surviving brothers of a clan that made its combined $11.5 billion fortune selling McCaw Cellular to AT&T in 1993. Brother John, 54, of Seattle, owns the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks and is remembered for once paying $18.5 million for a Los Angeles home, only to tear it down and erect a new one. The best-known brother, multibillionaire Craig, 56, of nearby Hunts Point, is a broadband technology developer and the 125th richest person in America. His newest wireless venture, Clearwire—a Wi-Fi provider that transmits its signals from cell phone towers—is currently available in 12 states, including Washington. In Hunts Point, which neighbors Medina, it is beamed from a local flagpole to Forbes 400 residents such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer. Locals refer to the twin lakeside towns as the Gold Coast, where one home currently for sale can be had for $5.3 million—or the 10 percent down payment on a $53 million crib.

This is George W. Bush country as well. Since 2003, three of the president's four fund-raising trips to Washington have taken him to Medina, where he has collected $4.5 million for the Republicans. A Craig McCaw–hosted event raised $1.7 million of that. The grateful president in turn last year appointed Craig McCaw's second wife, Susan, a venture capitalist, as U.S. ambassador to Austria. (Her goal is to correct "America's negative image" abroad, she said.)

But money and clout haven't cowed Medina City Hall in its battle with Bruce McCaw. City leaders are insistent that his playhouse is an illegal structure, and that it be moved elsewhere, perhaps the same way it came in: lifted by a crane over the hedge of McCaw's secluded 2-acre, $20 million Lake Washington compound.

McCaw likely paid $1,500 or more for his mini-lodge, based on costs for similar playhouses. He now faces a tab of more than $40,000 in legal fees for trying to save it from eviction by local officials and a complaining neighbor, construction mogul Fred Burnstead, who builds some of the area's largest homes. Other neighbors can see only the playhouse's shake roof when passing by on winding Groat Point Drive, but Burnstead, who lives next door, sees much of the back of the playhouse over a brick-and-iron fence guarding his $7 million lakeside mansion. Not only is the little house at variance with local decor standards, he says, he can even see and hear the kids at play.

McCaw, who didn't respond to requests for comment, might think his neighbor doesn't appreciate the challenges of raising kids. McCaw and wife Jolene co-chair the board of Seattle's Talaris Research Institute, which deals with the study of early learning and parenting and is keen on a childhood well played. As one of the McCaws' attorneys recently told the state Court of Appeals in a 44-page brief, parents "have the right and the obligation to care for their children . . . including the assurance that a child have time for play and exercise." The McCaws, he said, "bought a toy for their daughter—the playhouse—and in doing so exercised their unalienable, fundamental and inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." A "common sense reading" of the Declaration of Independence and the 14th Amendment, he added, shows Medina has violated "the constitutional rights of Mr. and Mrs. McCaw and their children."

This approach sounds good. It has also failed miserably. Since being cited for a land-use violation in 2003, McCaw has sought a variance from a Medina hearings officer, relief from the state Supreme Court, and a reversal from the state Court of Appeals—losing at every level. The appeals court ruling last month disagreed with McCaw's architect, Vassos Demetrios, who claimed a city permit was unnecessary because of the playhouse's design and temporary status. The court dismissed McCaw's constitutional and parental arguments as well. "Contrary to [McCaw's] assertions, the Constitution does not confer a right to erect a 128-square-foot playhouse that violates applicable local zoning regulations," the court stated. "References to the right to raise children free of government interference are not germane. . . . Moreover, a freestanding playhouse cannot be called 'necessary' for a child's care."

The court also agreed with neighbor Burnstead's contention that noisy children can spoil the ambience of sedate Medina. "Though the sound of children's play is perhaps not within the typical understanding of 'public detriment,'" the court concluded, "the record supports the [Medina hearing] examiner's finding that the noise and view impact would be detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to properties in the near vicinity."

Puzzling to some is why McCaw doesn't simply move the playhouse to another area of his 82,000-square-foot estate, saving him the agony of regular defeat. From the beginning, Medina has said the structure can stay on the compound if it is moved away from the property line bordering Burnstead's home; if not, out it goes.

"McCaw has stated he thinks that's the best site for his daughters and their safety," says Wayne Tanaka, an attorney for Medina, alluding to the encroaching abyss of Lake Washington as a potential hazard. "And I'll have to take him at his word. But the courts agree he has to move it elsewhere." Indeed, the appeals court saw little merit in McCaw's argument, ruling that "moving the playhouse could jeopardize the children's safety [McCaw says]. But personal circumstances, such as age, health, or convenient care of family members do not justify a variance."

Currently 0 for 3, will McCaw tempt a four-ruling sweep by appealing to the state Supreme Court? The lower courts have ruled he has to pay his opponents' legal fees—around $22,000 so far, says Tanaka—in addition to his own counsel's estimated $20,000 tab. But one attorney familiar with the dispute—there are six altogether representing McCaw, the Burnsteads, and the city of Medina—says costs are likely incidental to a billionaire on a mission. "He's gone this far," says the attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Why not top it off?"

To this end, one of McCaw's attorneys, Scott Missall, isn't in a mood to speculate. "I can't talk about that," he says. "I'm going to say goodbye now."

But even if he loses again, McCaw could gain one advantage by taking the case to the Supreme Court: time. He says in legal papers that when his daughters have outgrown the playhouse, within a few years, he will remove it. Now, if his attorneys can just delay a final judgment until they hit puberty.

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