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Simi Valley officials get in the spirit of haunted house

Shrieks of complaint prompt the city to reverse its demolition order, allowing the host to resurrect the popular Halloween attraction.

October 27, 2009|Catherine Saillant

In the eight years he has hosted the hippest haunted house in Simi Valley, Kyle Killips has dealt with his share of monsters, bloody ghouls and even a sadistic clown.

But his scariest encounter occurred Oct. 16 when a city code enforcement officer posted a notice ordering him to tear down his 1,200-square-foot "Haunted Hills" maze in 72 hours or be fined.

"We thought, 'That's it, it's over,' " said Killips, 37, whose day job is running the family's plastics company in Burbank. He and his mother, Cindy Fike, had put on the free haunted house for eight years without incident, even as it grew in size and popularity.

He estimates that about 1,000 people tiptoed through its spooky corridors each night last year in the days leading up to Halloween.

City officials weren't encouraging when they showed up, he said. They told him it was basically a building without permits and that it was unsafe .

"They didn't really give us any options at all except dismantling it and making it more of a yard display," Killips said.

Killips and some neighbors spent a glum weekend tearing it down.

But that wasn't the end of the story. A local newspaper wrote about the city's action last week, prompting a flood of calls and e-mails to City Hall demanding that Killips' annual creep show be allowed to go forward.

"No longer the land of the free. It is the land of the regulated," SpartanFan said in a typical blog post on the Ventura County Star's website. "Shame on the city of Simi. Next thing you know they will shut down the Christmas lanes."

By the end of the day, the city had reversed course. After summoning Killips and his mother to a meeting, city officials said they would relent if some minor modifications were made.

It helped, Killips said, that his next-door neighbor, a licensed structural engineer, was able to convince city planners that the maze was structurally sound.

Last week, the haunted house was little more than a pile of plywood and dusty props scattered on the driveway. Killips and five neighbors spent the weekend re-erecting it, rigging it with electricity and testing the pneumatic valves and sensors that animate the elaborate props.

Killips said he hoped to have everything set to go by the night before Halloween.

"It will be a race, and I'm not sure we'll be able to do everything," Killips said. "There's a lot of prep work involved."

City Manager Mike Sedell defended his staff's response, saying that they reacted in standard fashion to an anonymous complaint of an unsafe structure.

The volume of people moving through the haunted house raised legitimate concerns, he said.

"When you have 1,000 people going through, we pay attention," Sedell said. "The last thing anybody wants is a disaster out there because of a fire."

Still, Sedell said code enforcement should have recognized that this was not a typical case and tried to find ways to work out a solution.

"Sometimes government looks at things with a tunnel vision," he said. "Government needs to realize there is sometimes more than one view."

It's the first time Simi Valley has intervened in a home-based haunted house, the city manager said.

He suspects there are other elaborate displays that have never come to the city's attention but emphasizes that the city has no intention of deputizing a ghoul patrol.

"We are not out there trying to find haunted houses that are unsafe," he said. "The goal is to make sure it happens in a safe and wholesome way."

In the end, Killips agreed to add two more exits to his layout, bolster his supply of fire extinguishers and use only flame-resistant materials in his displays.

He also reduced the size slightly, to 1,000 square feet.

He says it's all worth it, estimating that he's spent $15,000 over the years on his collection of mummies, alien monsters, mad scientists and, for the first time this year, a large "Jurassic Park"-style dinosaur head.

"It all comes out of my pocket," said the father of three. "But the kids in the neighborhood get a blast out of it. When you hear them having so much fun, it's hard not to be in a good mood."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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