Mental-health advocates and some local residents are calling it ghoulish, but the owner of the historic former Pennsylvania Pennhurst Center has been given permission to operate a haunted-house attraction at the site.
After listening to two hours of testimony in a packed courtroom, Chester County Court Judge Robert J. Shenkin declined to issue an order that would have prevented the "Pennhurst Asylum" from opening at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
"We're very happy," said Richard Chakejian, who owns the 110-acre property and plans to operate the haunted house on weekend nights through Nov. 7.
Even before Shenkin issued his decision early Friday afternoon, the Arc, a national advocacy group for the mentally handicapped, called for a boycott of the Pennhurst attraction.
Pennhurst, where horrid abuses of residents were well-documented, became the focus of a landmark 1974 lawsuit that led to profound changes in the treatment of the mentally retarded nationwide. Pennhurst closed in 1987.
Friday's hearing, however, was confined to prosaic questions of whether the haunted house complied with zoning and permitting laws.
"We applied for whatever was required by the township," said Chakejian, noting that he had obtained a use and occupancy permit.
In their petition, Saul S. Rivkin, who lives about a mile from the complex, and his wife, Linda Fulton-Rivkin, held that the township also should have required building and construction permits. That, in turn, would have required hearings and opportunities for residents to raise questions and challenges.
"I'm disappointed," Rivkin, who is also chairman of the East Vincent Township Historical Society, said after the hearing. He added that he was encouraged that Shenkin suggested he would reconsider the request if something occurred at the Pennhurst attraction, located at the old administration building, that raised questions of public safety.
"He left the door open," said Stephen Siana, the Rivkins' attorney.
Rivkin said that while he would welcome a new hearing, he did not want it to be result of any tragedy: "I hope nothing happens to anyone there."