Santa's Land denied campsite permit
PUTNEY -- It's not often that, in Putney Development Review Board discussions, a large sculpture of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer serves as a boundary for a proposed project.
But that was the scene Tuesday night in Putney as the embattled owner of Santa's Land, who is facing both criminal charges and bankruptcy, led officials on a tour of a proposed campsite at the theme park.
Both the tour and a subsequent hearing at the town office turned out to be for naught, however, as the Development Review Board declined to approve a campsite and told property owner Lillian Billewicz to return with more documentation at a later meeting.
"If we have complete materials at that time, then we'll consider it," board Chairman Phil Bannister told Billewicz.
It was the latest twist for the formerly popular, 42-acre park, which Billewicz purchased little more than a year ago. Santa's Land reopened last summer and hosted visitors into the Christmas season, but the Route 5 park now is shuttered, and problems have been piling up.
Both Billewicz, 56, and property caretaker Brian Deistler, 25, have pleaded not guilty to animal-cruelty charges related to the alleged malnutrition and mistreatment of animals at Santa's Land.
Officials have said numerous deer and a potbelly pig died at the park over the winter, and other animals were malnourished. The case is pending in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, and Billewicz has been ordered to follow a written animal-care plan provided by a veterinarian.
Billewicz, who lists a Fair Haven address, also has requested Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection. Her debts primarily are business-related, according to federal court records.
In documents filed July 11, she listed a range of one to 49 creditors, with her total assets estimated from $100,001 to $500,000 and her estimated liabilities listed as the same.
Billewicz requested, and was granted, permission to pay the $281 bankruptcy filing fee in four installments.
The cruelty charges and the new bankruptcy proceedings have prompted continuing questions about Billewicz's ability to care for the animals remaining at Santa's Land. During Tuesday night's site visit by the Putney Development Review Board, protesters gathered on the opposite side of Route 5 bearing signs including "Bankruptcy Equals Hungry Animals."
But officials who have been involved with the criminal investigation of Santa's Land maintain that they are watching to ensure that Billewicz is adhering to court-ordered care instructions.
"We have been conducting spot checks of the animals and, to date, have not observed any violations of the conditions of release," Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark said.
The sheriff's office filed the charges against Billewicz and Deistler. Filing a supporting affidavit in that case was Putney Animal Control Officer Henry Farnum, who said he has continued to make periodic stops at Santa's Land.
"I have indeed been making site visits to the premises, both announced and unannounced, at times of scheduled feedings, to assure compliance with existing conditions of release in the pending criminal case," Farnum said.
When contacted by the Reformer Tuesday, Billewicz hung up on a reporter.
Billewicz's legal and financial troubles have not stopped her from pursuing permits for improvements and additions at the park. In March, she received a Putney Development Review Board permit for operating the Igloo Restaurant at Santa's Land.
Tuesday night's hearing before the same board was prompted by Billewicz's request to create a camping area for 15 tents at Santa's Land. The project would cost less than $4,000, she estimated in her application, and no additional parking would be necessary.
By the time Tuesday's site visit commenced, Billewicz had downsized her request to eight camping sites. With two representatives of the sheriff's office on hand to ensure order, there was relatively little tension as Billewicz led a group that included DRB members, a handful of residents and a few media representatives.
Clutching a large copy of her plans and a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup, Billewicz showed where she wants to place the tent sites -- a grassy area at the front of the park near Route 5, amid statues of Rudolph and Santa Claus.
"If it turns out that this doesn't fit your zoning, then perhaps this can be modified," she told officials.
There were no animals within sight of the group, and yellow caution tape warned against trespassing beyond the immediate area.
The brightly colored buildings of Santa's Land sat dormant among tall pines and paved paths. At one point, Deistler -- who also is facing heroin and theft charges in unrelated, pending cases -- emerged from another part of the property, wearing a black suit and carrying a large bird.
Following the relatively brief site visit, the Development Review Board returned to the town office for a hearing. After the board considered four other projects, Billewicz and Deistler settled in, but they were quickly informed that their documentation was not sufficient.
Putney's regulations require a minimum 2,500-square-foot allowance for each camp site, and each site must have a minimum width of 25 feet. Bannister pointed out that Billewicz's site plan was not to scale, so board members were not able to determine her proposed camp site's square footage.
"I think we do not have complete information to make a determination," Bannister said, also noting that the town requires a 100-foot, natural, vegetated buffer between the road and campsites.
When Billewicz asked how she might accomplish that, Bannister told her the board could not make suggestions on a design. Rather, he instructed her to bring more-detailed plans to the board's next meeting.
Among those attending some of Tuesday's proceedings was Emily Peyton, a Putney resident and frequent gubernatorial candidate who is on the ballot this year as both a Republican and an independent.
Peyton spent time talking to Billewicz about the possibility of transforming Santa's Land into an animal sanctuary.
"I want to see Santa's Land be something that we're all proud of," Peyton said.
She added, however, that she has no funding for such a venture.
"All I have is encouragement," Peyton said.
Elo-Mai Noormets of Westminster took part in the same conversation. She carried a petition with 13 signatures showing support for establishing a "humane education center" at Santa's Land -- a place, she said, "where people come to heal and help out with the animals."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.