BERLIN – After a lot of back-and-forth with the town, one local resident has decided to cancel his attempt to offer a haunted house to the community this year.
“It’s been an incredibly negative experience,” said property owner Eric Belardo yesterday afternoon.
Belardo, who regularly decorates his house for Halloween, decided to take it one step further this year and turn his property on Dueling Way in Decatur Farm into a walkable haunted house. He enlisted the help of friends and students in the community. According to Belardo, the group “quickly became a family” and local high school and middle school students sunk dozens of hours into the project, with many of them receiving community service credit from their schools.
“We got an amazing response from the community,” Belardo told the council.
Last Friday, however, Belardo received a visit from Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward and Town Administrator Tony Carson. Though an initial inspection by Ward didn’t raise any flags, a determination was made later that day the town considered the haunted house a “business venture,” something Belardo denied. A letter was then issued by the town warning Belardo not to open.
“We do not qualify as a business,” he told the council. “It’s a free event by and for the community … why was a made-up excuse that made no sense used to shut us down?”
Belardo originally planned on collecting donations at the door from anyone who was feeling charitable and giving all proceeds earned to the Little Bears and Sunflowers Learning Center. After Ward’s visit, however, Belardo decided to make the event free to all and to not collect any donations from anyone.
Ward defended the letter and explained that the information he had at the time led him to conclude that Belardo’s haunted house was a commercial act and thus would violate the R-1 residential zoning in his neighborhood. With its own website, flyers, listed operating hours and overall organization, said Ward, the haunted house gave the indication of being a business venture.
Even if the house was not a business, he continued, knowing what it “was not” did not explain what it “was.”
“In zoning, a lot of times, we’re not trying to figure out what something is not; we’re trying to figure out what something is,” Ward said.
Even after Belardo contested the terminology, Ward pointed out that a haunted house running for several nights is still considered a non-permitted use for Belardo’s neighborhood, whether it was technically a business or not, and that arguing the vocabulary in the letter was a case of semantics.
“It was a non-residential use,” said Ward.
Even if he was incorrect labeling the house a business venture, explained Ward, it would still qualify as a non-residential use and cannot open. He also cited concerns like lack of parking and traffic issues that could be caused by the haunted house.
“There would be no way to control the number of visitors that come into this event,” Ward said.
Belardo appealed to the council to grant a special exemption. He pointed out the hours of work kids in the community had devoted to the project.
“We’re asking for your mercy, for your commonsense,” he said.
However, town attorney Dave Gaskill asserted that, no matter how the council felt, they would not be able to cancel Ward’s decision.
“Unfortunately,” said Gaskill, “the mayor and council do not have the authority to overturn that determination.”
Instead, an appeal could be made to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which will meet next on Nov. 15. Since that day was two weeks after Halloween, even if Ward’s decision was overturned it would be pointless to open a haunted house just in time for Thanksgiving, argued Belardo. He asked for any alternative that the council could offer that would allow the house to operate in time for the holiday.
Mayor Gee Williams explained that there probably wouldn’t have been any issues with the house if Belardo had come to the council months earlier and asked for a special event permit.
He added that there was a “very unfortunate miscommunication” and now the council was in a tough spot. Belardo apologized but maintained that neither he nor his home owner’s association was aware that any kind of permit or permission was needed from the town before something like his haunted house could be open to the public.
“The rules need to be published … I and these children are victims of not knowing what the rules are, what the issues are,” said Belardo.
While Williams admitted that the town code isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand, all Belardo would have needed to do was contact the town administration if there was ever any doubt, and there would be people available to walk him through the process. Ward added that the information is also on the town’s website.
Though he acknowledged that the information was available, Belardo maintained that the town is not doing a good enough job of explaining what makes something require a special event permit.
“There’s no education,” he said.
Councilmember Dean Burrell cut short the cyclical exchange between Belardo and the council.
“We can talk about government and its place in society all night long,” he said.
Instead, Burrell advised trying to come up with a compromise that would allow the haunted house to operate while still meeting town standards.
“I believe we can make this work,” said Burrell.
Initially, Belardo suggested scaling back the size of the house. However, he worried that removing too much would cancel out all of the work local kids have contributed to the project. Ward suggested cutting back on the hours of operation instead. Being open for six nights, he told Belardo, seemed excessive. Eventually, Belardo agreed to only operating on Halloween night, which Ward acknowledged was a traditional use and would not violate the zoning of Belardo’s neighborhood.
Though he had hoped for at least one additional night so those who were busy on Halloween would still get a chance to experience the event, Belardo was at least happy that he would not need to scale back or remove any sections of the haunted house.
However, the next day Belardo learned that the haunted house, which he wanted to be open 7-10 p.m., had only been approved to operate from 5-7 p.m., Berlin’s traditional trick-or-treating hours.
“What’s the point of having a lighted event in the day time?” he asked later.
Soon after he learned of the new time restriction, Belardo received a letter from the office of Worcester County Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon. While McMahon never visited the site personally, he provided Belardo with a list of safety qualifications he would need to meet. Some of the criteria in the letter included a need for EMS, fire and police access, the consideration of traffic control and warnings against using “excessive amounts of exposed plywood” as it would constitute a fire hazard. McMahon then asked for a visit to be scheduled.
After the difficulties with the town, the limited window of time in which he was approved to operate and the letter from the fire marshal, Belardo decided to cancel the haunted house this year.
“It’s just gotten very ugly,” he said.
While the town has offered to work with Belardo to prepare for a new, properly licensed event next year, the experience has left Belardo hesitant.
“I haven’t made up my mind to collaborate with the town,” he said.