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Rania Peet is a woman in search of a very specific item: A working fog machine. She's rummaging through big plastic bins she just pulled out of a backyard shed. She lists the items as she sorts through them.
"Spider webs, body parts, spandex, lights, fog machines, fog chiller, chicken wire ghosts, animated props, candles, extension cords... and random things," she says.
All these "random things" will soon be put to use in the "Haunted Garden," a sort of Halloween-on-steroids display Peet assembles every October in the yard of a single-family home on Worth Avenue in Silver Spring. This year, her signature installation will be a 20-foot-high witch that looms over visitors as they enter the yard.
"We've been building this up at my farm in West Virginia," she says. "We start using wood, and we create an inner shell, an endoskeleton, and cover them with chicken wire, and cover that in cheesecloth, which then gets sprayed with a two-part spray foam system."
All this takes time — something Peet has found to be in short supply of late.
Trouble for the Haunted Garden
"This year, not only was I working hard and stressed out about getting the production done on it, but then I got sent into a whirlwind of media and press and interviews and backlash and court and... yeah, it was complete insanity."
The "insanity" she's talking about began earlier this month, when Montgomery County was awarded a temporary restraining order that, at least for a while, halted plans to open this year's Haunted Garden to the public. That court order prompted a flurry of local and national media coverage.
"It's been extremely stressful, just dealing with everything," says Donna Kerr, the Silver Spring homeowner who's hosted the Haunted Garden on her property since 2010. "We're just still kind of amazed that people don't like it. We feel like it's a great event for the community. There's overwhelming support here for it."
But some people in the neighborhood are less than thrilled with Kerr's spooky spectacle. Jean Cavanaugh, who lives a few doors down from Kerr, is one of them.
"This is not an issue of 'Do you like the Haunted Garden?' That's not the issue at all," she says. "We don't have any problems with her decorations, etc. It's the insane invitation that basically invites tens of thousands of people... everybody knows about it."
Cavanaugh says, for the record, that she loves Halloween. But in her opinion, neighborhood streets can't handle the hundreds of daily visitors who swarm to the Haunted Garden when it's open. People drive on residents' yards, she says, and she's even heard reports of public urination.
Social event or business event?
County officials have definitely taken note of those complaints. Montgomery County's director of permitting services, Diane Schwartz Jones, is one of them.
"You know, people when they buy their homes and move into a community, they're entitled to peacefully enjoy their neighborhood, she says."
Jones argues that the Haunted Garden is essentially a way for Kerr to promote her real estate firm, Pure Energy.
"The issue is really not about whether anybody can decorate their home — of course they can," she says. "The issue is whether a business can introduce extreme levels of traffic into a small tiny neighborhood that's not designed to handle that traffic. It's about public safety."
Pure Energy has publicized the Haunted Garden in its real estate fliers and online, and the company's staffers are among those working on the Garden. But Kerr strongly refutes the idea that the Haunted Garden is a business event — she says it's a way to give back to the community she calls home.
The county's compromise
Earlier this month, Montgomery County District Judge Patricia Mitchell tried to find a compromise between the two sides in the dispute, ruling that the event could take place on two days — October 25 and 26 — instead of the planned five. And so back on Worth Avenue, the show is going on.
Rania Peet and her staff of helpers — she calls them "ninjas" — spent this week in a frenzy, hot gluing and cobwebbing and spray-foaming the displays in Donna Kerr's yard. She says all the hard work is worth it, even if they can only show it to the public on two nights.
"It's a lot more than just the two nights of people coming... it creates art," she says.
Down the street, Jean Cavanaugh is also thinking ahead to next year — and she says there's an obvious way for her neighbor to repair relations with people in the community.
"Personally my ideal resolution to this problem would be for Donna to have a truly neighborhood event, and not advertise it," she says.
The matter may be settled long before Halloween 2014 rolls around. County officials say they expect a judge to consider a request for a permanent injunction against Silver Spring's most controversial garden sometime in the next few months.
[Music: "Edward Scissorhands Theme" by Danny Elfman from Edward Scissorhands Soundtrack]
Photos: Haunted Garden