Light show can go on but Puslinch resident has to hire police for crowd, traffic control

PUSLINCH – Shawn Gusz will have to hire off-duty police if he wants to have a display this Christmas.

Gusz famously puts on light and projection displays at his home at 20 Fox Run Drive at Christmas and Halloween that draw hundreds of viewers.

But since the township instituted a publicized display bylaw in March, Gusz has had to first apply for a permit and alter his displays.

He applied for a permit for the Christmas show on Oct. 12 and outlined a pared-down version in the application, with a shorter video component of just four minutes from the usual six, restricted hours (6 to 9pm), and the display will be up for a week – Dec. 19 to 26.

The application was approved by staff on Oct. 17.

However, the township received a notice of appeal on Nov. 10 and so it was up to council to decide whether it could go forward or not.

On Nov. 30 Puslinch council heard from John Holford, a neighbour on Fox Run Drive who is opposed to the display.

Holford said historically, traffic gets backed up along Fox Run Drive and Brock Road, viewers stand in the street to watch, and it’s a dangerous scenario for visitors and residents.

He said pickpockets frequent the display and there is often other illegal activity as well, like people running through backyards, and teens smoking marijuana.

Holford also worried that in granting a permit, the township would be liable if an accident occurred.

“The show can quickly escalate,” Holford said. “(Shawn) made a forecast of 100 cars a day. But what if it’s 500 cars? What will you do to handle it?

“Residential streets cannot turn into drive-in theatres.”

Holford said having police control traffic would make it safer and more palatable for residents and requested council to add three conditions to the permit:

  • three paid off-duty police officers in the neighbourhood during display hours to control the crowd and traffic;
  • a bylaw officer on the property during the show; and
  • a third party collecting donations and delivering them to the charity of Gusz’s choice.

Gusz told council there are only two or three neighbours who opposed the display, and he has a petition with 42 signatures of support from other residents in the neighbourhood.

He said he constantly tries to improve the shows and over the past three years, no one gets out of their cars.

Gusz noted about nine vehicles can stop in front of his house and watch the show at one time.

SHAWN GUSZ (Facebook photo)

He broadcasts music and sound effects that viewers can hear through their car radios. Then they move along, and the next nine vehicles can watch.

He said he put up signage to indicate the way in and out so traffic would flow in one direction only.

He’s deleted his social media pages so the display is no longer publicized, but he can’t control what others will post.

“Each year I made improvements to alleviate concerns,” he said.

Gusz explained he has added a 15- or 20-second delay in the four-minute video loop so people will know the show is over and they’ve seen all there is to see.

“By having a definitive stop, it lets people know it’s done,” Gusz said, in answer to a question by councillor Jessica Goyda.

“The intent is to shorten the length of time people are sticking around.”

CAO Glenn Schwendinger said he spoke with OPP and learned that while police can usually provide an officer for a one-day event, it’s more difficult to find off-duty officers willing to commit to a week of evenings, especially at Christmas.

Mayor James Seeley said he attended the display in the past and was alarmed at the congestion he witnessed on both sides of the road.

“I think a paid duty officer is appropriate,” Seeley said, adding he’d like to see one officer on weeknights and three on weekends, which are typically the busiest nights.

“My only concern is the projector and audio. This is what’s turning a residential area into a drive-in theatre,” he added

While praising Gusz for putting on a fantastic display and noting it’s the video display and not the static lights that are of concern, councillors decided to add a condition to the permit.

Gusz must have one paid duty police officer on duty Monday to Thursday and two officers on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which historically are the busiest days.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Gusz said he was “more or less on board” with some sort of traffic control.

“I was thinking of volunteers” for traffic control, he said.

“I’m okay with having police and I’m okay with footing the bill. But it sounds like police aren’t available.

“And if police aren’t available then there’s no display. But people are going to come anyway, and they won’t be very happy if they’ve come for nothing.”

Gusz said he feels like the publicized display bylaw is aimed entirely and only at him, and he had bitter words to say about Seeley and township staff.

His history with these kinds of displays goes back decades.

Gusz held a walk-through haunted house in a vacant butcher shop in Guelph a decade or two ago and later constructed a haunted house in the Stone Road Mall parking lot made from five transport truck trailers.

Gusz said his Halloween display this year was a much lesser version of what he usually does “and there was only a trickle of people.”

During the council meeting, clerk Courtenay Hoytfox noted the township had not received any complaints about the Halloween display.

Gusz has been holding his shows at his home on Fox Run Drive for about five years, but as he now owns property in Guelph’s industrial park, he’s considering moving them there in the future.

He said Guelph has an occasional use bylaw that would allow these shows to run for 90 days, which is much more than he needs.

For this year he’s thinking about doing away with the video display. Then he wouldn’t need a permit at all.

“I could do a lot with Christmas lights,” he said.

“They could go on and off in sequence. It could still be spectacular.

“But I have to say, this whole fiasco is leaving a bad taste in my mouth.”