Albany Panel Votes to Allow Teen's Halloween Haunted House
Sam DuBois, a 15-year-old Albany resident, has built a haunted house on his mother's property for the last three years. (Susan Cohen/KQED)
Update, Thursday Oct. 29: The Albany Planning and Zoning Commission has given 15-year-old Sam DuBois the go-ahead to stage his annual Halloween haunted house this weekend.
The panel voted 3-0 to reject an appeal by neighbor Gary Kratkin, who had complained about noise from the Albany Haunt event and the construction leading up to it. Last year, about 600 people visited the attraction over four evenings.
The commission heard about an hour and a half of testimony and comments before approving the event, which will take place in the DuBois' backyard on Peralta Avenue.
But after comments from community members who argued that the Haunt has grown too large for a residential neighborhood, board members said they shared concerns about the event's scale and suggested they would not approve the event in the same location next year.
Under its city permit, the Albany Haunt will be held from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Friday and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Halloween night.
Original post: Sam DuBois has spent the last two months getting ready for Halloween. The 15-year-old founder of the Albany Haunt, a seasonal attraction that pops up in the East Bay city each October, needs to get a head start on the holiday. The theme of this year's haunted house is "nightmares," and Sam plans to exploit the classics: clowns, dentists, etc.
Sam got the idea to start his own haunted house after visiting a similar one in nearby Kensington.
"I really enjoyed it — and then I realized: I could do this myself," he said.
He was in middle school at the time.
Now the Haunt -- where people pay what they can and no one is turned away -- is in its third official year in the Peralta Avenue backyard of Sam's mother. His hand-built haunted house gives neighborhood kids a quick walk through their worst fears. It has also raised monetary and food donations for the Alameda County Food Bank that have provided 2,500 meals.
But on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October, construction at the Haunt was at a standstill, although there was a ton of work left to do. Dressed in a "Knott's Scary Farm" T-shirt, Sam busied himself with decorating, helped by some teenage volunteers. The only spooky sound effects were the screams of children playing in Terrace Park, behind the DuBois home.
The relative quiet probably pleased Gary Kratkin, who lives with his wife and 5-year-old son on the southern side of the DuBois house. For him, the unsanctioned Haunt is a real-life nightmare that extends far past Halloween. While Kratkin had brought his concerns to the DuBois in person in the past, in 2014, within hours of the house's opening, Kratkin called police. But they let the Haunt continue. So this year, Kratkin contacted the Albany city government.
"It's growing every year, so what happens next year?" Kratkin asked. "We decided this time to at least bring the city into it and go through the legal process. You can't just build anything."
When Sam was 11, he told his mother, Holly DuBois, that he wanted to build a "cauldron creep." She was skeptical. Still, she watched as Sam animated a plastic skeleton, using the motor from a Christmas reindeer. Combined with sound effects and a fog machine, the creep was a huge hit with trick-or-treaters that Halloween.
"The next year, when he said, 'I want to build a haunted house,' I thought, 'Well, he probably can,' " DuBois laughed.
In the years since, she's watched her son teach himself carpentry and electrical skills as he's built his Haunt, first in their driveway and now in their backyard. Sam assembles everything for the event, from the lifelike gravestones in the front yard to a circus tent fashioned from an army parachute in the back. He even started fabricating his own line of Halloween masks. DuBois proudly points out that it wasn't her idea to raise funds and food for the Alameda County Food Bank -- she says Sam came up with that on his own.
But Kratkin doesn't think the positive outcomes of the Haunt justify the unwanted effects on his family. Some of the Haunt's scarier features frightened his son, whose bedroom faced the attraction when it took place in the driveway. Then there's the noise, which isn't limited to sound effects or shrieking children on just two October weekends. Kratkin says he suffers through months of construction-related racket, often during dinner or his son's naptime.
The exact length of the Haunt's construction time is up for debate. Kratkin says it can last as long as six months, while Sam says that in the past he officially began in mid-September. This year, between his high school schedule and having to plan ahead for fire inspections, he decided to get a one-month head start. He attributes additional construction-related noises that may bother Kratkin throughout the year to his other hobbies, not to the Haunt.
After 2014's incident with the police, and before construction began this summer, Sam took his plans for his next Haunt to Albany's fire marshal. They were approved, and Sam was set to build, until he got an email from Albany City Planner Anne Hersch, who had been tipped off by an anonymous complaint. She said he would need to procure a temporary use permit as well.
At an Albany Planning Division meeting in late September, Sam, his mother and about two dozen supporters tried to make the Haunt's case. Kratkin did not attend, sending in a letter with his arguments.
The planning commission decided to let Sam open the house — after he paid $461 for a temporary use permit, plus $120 for a building permit. They also determined that the first pre-Halloween weekend of the event would not be open to the public, but would instead be an invitation-only dress rehearsal.
In a statement provided to KQED, Albany Public Information spokeswoman Nicole Almaguer said: "The city is working with all parties to make sure that the event is appropriate for the neighborhood, that it is safe for visitors, and the community at large."
Kratkin, however, was not happy with the planning division's decision. He had hoped for a shutdown or, at the very least, that the city would have limited the Haunt to Halloween night exclusively. He felt the pro-DuBois turnout amounted to "minor league mob rule" and that the city succumbed to its pressure. Still, he had 14 days to appeal.
And on the 14th day — Oct. 14, the same day as the city's next planning meeting — he did. Legally, the matter could not be heard on that day's docket, which meant the parties will have to wait until Oct. 28.
Until then, the Haunt is effectively dead. Even if the city again rules in Sam's favor, he'll have only hours to prepare for the influx of horror fans on Halloween weekend, and he won't have time to raise as many donations as he has in the past.
"The goal in the end of all this is to help people," Sam said. "Now half of our days have been cut at least, maybe more. I could get delayed more. They could appeal again, in theory."
And the more Sam has to spend on permits, the less he has left for the Alameda County Food Bank. (Sam also takes a cut of the proceeds to cover his construction costs.) "That's money (for the permits) that I really would have been loving to donate to charity, not to my local city government," he said.
Barbara Cooper lives on the northern side of the DuBois house, two doors down from Kratkin and his family. She says she and her husband look forward to Sam's Haunt every year, and she thinks the move from the driveway to the backyard will help smooth any complications that the Coopers have experienced in the past.
"We think Sam should be completely applauded for this effort, for bringing kids together to do something good in the community," Cooper said.
DuBois has never been a big fan of haunted houses, but "part of being a parent is supporting your kid, whoever they are, and to grow and learn and develop their talents and interests," she said. And she's seen her support rub off on Sam's friends.
"For the last three years, I've had a growing group of young people at my home," DuBois said. "They are doing creative work. They are bettering the community. They are doing things for people that are less fortunate than them, and I'm seeing learning and interaction and development. That is everything you want for your children and for the next generation."
Kratkin said that negotiations in good faith would be welcome, but admits there's been an "accumulation of bad blood." If his appeal isn't met, Kratkin may resort to more litigious options.
"You don't want to be suing the neighbor kid," he said. "It's absurd. The whole situation is absurd. But at this point, we feel like we have to defend ourselves or it's just going to keep growing."
Sam is defending himself, too. So far, he's received encouragement from neighbors, community members and owners of the largest haunted houses in country. A "Support the Albany Haunt" page was recently created.
"I've had so many people put letters in my mailbox way after Halloween saying, 'Thank you so much for this event,' " Sam said. "That's really helped raise my spirits."
Note: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Sam DuBois and Gary Kratkin had met in person in the past before the authorities were involved.