Haunted Garden: Trick or treat?

Columnist October 30, 2011

Donna Kerr loves Halloween. Whether you think Donna loves Halloween a little too much might depend on how far you live from her.

Donna’s Silver Spring house sits on a corner lot. Last year she decided to decorate her yard with ghosts and goblins and invite people to check out the displays.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Donna invited a lot of people and a lot of people came, between 1,000 and 1,500 by her estimate. This year, she added some new attractions to what she calls the Haunted Garden, supplementing her faux cemetery and “Ship of Lost Souls” with elaborate multimedia exhibits such as “The Altar of the Vampires,” “The Haunted Woods” and “The Zombie Horde.” She’s switching on the lights and fog machines and welcoming visitors over six nights.

Some neighbors wish she wouldn’t.

“If it was on a small scale, if it were just for the neighborhood, like she claims, I don’t think anyone would complain,” said one person who lives on Donna’s street, Worth Avenue, and is troubled by the crowds. “But she advertises throughout the whole downcounty area. . . . She’s bringing all these strangers into our neighborhood.”

Said another neighbor: “It certainly looks like a cute thing to have — it has a lot of appeal — but it doesn’t belong in a residential community.” They both asked that I not use their names because they don’t want to inflame the situation.

It’s a situation that has spilled over onto the Seven Oaks neighborhood online message group, where neighbors debate the propriety of the attraction.

Donna says she can’t understand the fuss. “When someone gets upset about a little bit of extra traffic, it always surprises me a little bit,” she said.

Last week, Montgomery County sent out various inspectors to see if the Haunted Garden was running afoul of any laws. All was found to be in order — she doesn’t charge admission, and noise levels were under the limit — except for one thing: Donna’s signs.

Ah, the signs. They made reference to something called the Pure Energy Team. A spotlight even flashed the Pure Energy logo on the side of the house. Donna is a real estate agent, and Pure Energy is her company. The person who designed the Haunted Garden — Rania Peet — used to work for Donna as a “stager,” transforming homes to help them sell (presumably without severed limbs and bloody eyeballs).

As Donna puts it on her Web site: “The HAUNTED GARDEN is just another manifestation of our uniquely imaginative approach to real estate and our commitment to community.”

As a species, real estate agents tend not to be shy. Some of Donna’s neighbors see the Haunted Garden as a sort of Trojan Zombie — nothing more than her way of trolling for new clients.

Said one: “She’s not exactly doing business, but it’s a publicity event. . . . This elaborate thing isn’t something you do because a few neighborhood kids like it.”

Donna took the signs down. “But other than that,” she said, “you can have a yard haunt and there’s really nothing anybody can do about it.”

Mark Cress lives two houses down from the Haunted Garden and thinks it’s cool. “It’s very well done,” he said. “Is there some additional traffic? Yeah. To me, the benefits outweigh any disruptions.”

As for as the advertising aspect, it doesn’t bother him. “Real estate is all about networking, word of mouth,” Mark said. “If they get a little benefit out of it, I don’t have an issue with that. They’ve probably spent thousands.”

At-large County Council member George Leventhal has been asked by some unhappy neighbors to see what might be done.

“We have zoning for a reason,” he said. “We try to keep residential neighborhoods quiet and safe. There are issues with access for emergency vehicles and inviting crowds of people.”

Still, George said he’s withholding judgment until he has a chance to check it out in person.

“I want to be fair to all parties,” he said. “I’m sure there are people who like it and people who don’t like it.”

In other words, one person’s trick is another person’s treat.

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