PUTNEY — For a Connecticut man steeped in magic, re-opening Santa's Land would be a trick he has dreamed about for years.
"I have been actively pursuing this property for some time," said David Haversat, of Oxford, Conn. "I have been going to Santa's Land since I was 4 or 5. Once, when I was 8, we visited and there was a girl riding a lawn mower. I remember thinking, one day, I would like to be doing that and working here. Little did I know one day I would be trying to buy it."
Haversat, a magician by trade, is a co-owner of Haversat & Ewing Galleries, an auction house specializing in "high-quality magic and conjuring collectibles," according to its website. Haversat is also a publisher of historical books on magic and conjuring, under the imprint of the 1878 Press Company.
In 2002, he heard the property was up for sale and before he could make an offer, it was purchased. In 2005, John Fanelli bought the property. And then in 2013, he had another chance to buy the amusement park but the then-owners made a deal with Lillian Billewicz to assume the mortgage from Fanelli's estate after he died.
"You know the rest of the story," said Haversat.
In the winter of 2013/2014, 18 animals, including 16 deer, were found dead at the holiday-themed destination in Putney. She and her animal caretaker at the time, Brian Deistler of Westminster, each were arraigned on charges of animal cruelty. Charges against Deistler were eventually dropped.
Billewicz defaulted on the mortgage and the property was returned to the Fanelli's estate. She filed for bankruptcy in 2014 and since then the legacy of the property has remained in limbo. But on March 10, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed a Windham Superior Court decision denying Billewicz's claim to the property. Billewicz filed a motion to stay the proceedings against her, followed by a series of bankruptcy petitions, all of which were ultimately dismissed by the federal bankruptcy court. In October 2016, Billewicz filed a complaint, alleging Fanelli's estate had fraudulently misrepresented the fair market value of the property. According to the Vermont Supreme Court ruling dismissing Billewicz's complaint, the property is currently under a contract of sale for less than $300,000, the amount the property was valued at.
"(Windham Superior Court) noted that the foreclosure judgment was final, that plaintiff had failed to follow the procedures for appealing the
judgment ... and that nothing in the complaint showed that she could not have challenged the earlier stipulated value during the foreclosure proceedings," wrote the Vermont Supreme Court.
Now that the matter has been resolved by the Supreme Court, said Haversat, it's up to the Windham County Probate Court to OK the sale of the property to him. Haversat said, depending on when the probate court clears the title and how many repairs need to be done, the park could be open this summer.
In July 2016, Haversat went before the Putney Development Review Board to seek approval for the re-opening of the park.
"I told the members of the board it's sad to see it this way," said Haversat. He noted that the property produces a fair amount of tax revenue for the town. "I am sure they would like to see it cleaned up and not just become more overgrown or dilapidated."
In addition to reclaiming his memories of the property, Haversat said he was concerned Santa's Land might be sold for commercial or residential development, something he did not want to see. "I want to restore it to the way it was before, if not better, and do away with the checkered past attached to it over the last few years."
Recently, acts of vandalism have caused damage to the property. He installed game cameras on the property, which seem to have prevented more vandalism from occurring.
While Haversat has extensive plans for re-opening the park, he does not intend to re-open the petting zoo. "I grew up as a member of the Future Farmers of America. I worked on farms. I have an animal husbandry background."
He plans to open the park only three months in the summer, and maybe for weekends around Christmas time, but animals require care and feeding 365 days out of the year, something that is not financially feasible for a part-time park.
This year marks the park's 60th anniversary. It was founded in 1957 by Jack Poppele, who was vacationing in Vermont when he fell in love with the parcel of Route 5. He operated the park for 13 years before selling it to the Brewer family, which ran if for 32 years, before selling it.
"Santa's Land remained a popular destination for both locals and vacationers for nearly six decades," wrote Haversat in documents presented to the Development Review Board. "Generations of families have visited since the first day the park opened in 1957. ... It's my goal to being a new, positive chapter in the history of this property."
Haversat told the Reformer he has no plans at this time to re-open The Igloo, where food could be cooked and served. "It's not an instrumental part of my plans at this time. Maybe in the future."
He hopes the Probate Court can resolve the issue and he can get to work on cleaning up the property and restoring the buildings so it can open in July, but if it takes too long to resolve, he may not be able to open the park this year. "I don't want to open this if it's only half done," he said.
One thing Haversat hopes to add is a display of the Santa's Land memorabilia he has collected over the years, including, most recently, an 8mm film of the property taken many years ago.
"I like history," he said. "Maybe that's why I want to rehabilitate Santa's Land. It's truly the magic of Christmas."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow him on Twitter @audette.reformer.