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Amish favoritism alleged as Lancaster suburb considers allowing 2 horses on half-acre lots


A horse-drawn buggy travels on a back road in Lancaster County in this LNP/LancasterOnline file photo.

Levi Stoltzfus Jr., a member of the Amish church who drives a horse-drawn buggy, recently failed to persuade his township to bend its rules and allow him to stable two horses beside a home on a one-acre lot.

“An only horse is a lonely horse,” Stoltzfus told East Hempfield Township’s zoning hearing board, which voted 3-2 in April against his request for a zoning variance at 3042 Shenck Road.

But now, in reaction to that divided vote, township leaders are thinking about making it easier for Plain sect members to keep horses in car-oriented neighborhoods throughout the mostly suburban township.

Their proposed revision to the zoning ordinance has prompted a challenge from a resident, who alleges religious favoritism.

Should the Amish have horses if they live in towns or suburbs?

Some Amish are moving off farms and into neighborhoods, wanting to bring horses to pull their buggies. East Hempfield Township is considering letting them house two horses on half-acre lots.

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Relaxing the ordinance would benefit “Amish persons at the expense of others” and “advance the practice of the Amish religion,” an attorney for resident Richard Szarko said in a memorandum to the township.

The controversy is the latest to arise in and around Lancaster County as some in the growing Amish population — which now numbers about 33,000 people — take up non-farming occupations and look to move off farms and into neighborhoods, while keeping horses to pull their buggies.

Half-acre proposal

At present, East Hempfield, population 24,614, allows one horse per acre in the large agricultural zone north of Route 283.

Under the proposed change, two horses could be kept on as little as a half acre. Horses would be allowed in the agricultural zone as well as in residential and village zones, which make up major swaths of the municipality.

The horses would still have to be kept in an enclosed, detached building, but the distance of a stable from any property line would shrink from 100 feet to 20 feet. Strict manure, odor and noise control measures would apply.

Colin Siesholtz, the township’s zoning officer, said the proposed ordinance, as posted on the township’s website, is not in its final form and remains a work in progress.

Horses and buggies

Horses and buggies may be an increasingly common sight in suburban neighborhoods. 

In objecting to the proposed revisions, Szarko, of Shenck Road, cites road apples and increased congestion if neighborhoods are subject to regular horse traffic. His attorney’s memorandum further contends horses will be deprived of a field for grazing and “a quiet existence.”

The township’s five-member board of supervisors could vote on the three-page measure as early as Wednesday, Aug. 21.

“This is about transportation, plain and simple” supervisor Tom Bennett said. “We don’t regulate the number of vehicles that someone owns, and in my view I don’t think we should be regulating the number of horses that an Amish person can utilize for transportation purposes.”

Transportation need

The proposed revision nowhere mentions the Amish. Instead, it applies to those who want a small barn on their property for horses they use as their primary means of transportation.

But Szarko’s attorney, Veronica Morrison of Harrisburg, in her legal memo, says the ordinance implicitly singles out the Amish even if the group is not mentioned.

“In another place and time, perhaps cowboys and country folks used horses to get around,” Morrison wrote, but today in East Hempfield Township only the Amish prefer horses over cars.

She added that the ordinance “encourages Amish to populate the area in higher numbers” and “advances the practice of the Amish religion in the township, regardless of whether it is to the detriment of other non-religious residents.”

Eric Winkle, an attorney representing Stoltzfus, denied that the proposal favors one religion over the other, but he said it would allow the Amish to move off the farm without violating their religious principles.

“The way it is now, Mr. and Mrs. Stoltzfus have to keep their horses at a neighbor’s property,” Winkle said. Szarko’s “claim of religious favoritism, I believe, is just because he doesn’t want his neighbor to have a horse barn on their small property.”

Bennett, a township supervisor, agreed the revision would help the Amish, but he doesn’t see religious implications.

“I think the zoning hearing board acted correctly, given the facts they were presented with,” Bennett said. “What we’re trying to do in terms of changing the ordinance is make it more reasonable. We value the contributions the Amish make to our community.”