In April, East Hempfield Township’s zoning hearing board voted 3-2 against an Amish man’s request to stable two horses beside a home on a 1-acre lot on Shenck Road. Now, as LNP’s Jeff Hawkes reported Saturday, “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.” Colin Siesholtz, the township’s zoning officer, said the proposed ordinance had not been finalized.
They have strong beliefs, and are reluctant to compromise those beliefs. They hew to unwritten rules about how life should be lived.
And those are just residents of Lancaster County suburbia.
Imagine how challenging it must be for the Amish to move out of farming areas and into suburban neighborhoods. Should they be expected to give up their means of transportation?
It’s becoming an increasingly common question.
Hawkes wrote last month that more Lancaster County municipalities are fielding requests from Amish families seeking to move into villages, towns and suburban developments and wanting to have “a small stable for a horse, just as the non-Amish have garages for cars.”
“It’s become a trend among the Amish community to live on these smaller residential lots as they come off the farm and are no longer choosing to do agriculture,” Mark Deimler, an engineer who provides zoning enforcement for Lancaster County municipalities, told Hawkes.
In a discussion with LNP in 2018, Donald Kraybill, senior fellow emeritus at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, explained that Lancaster County’s Amish community — unlike other, more conservative Amish groups — now accepts state-of-the-art indoor plumbing of the sort that can be found in suburban houses. But while they will accept rides in other people’s cars, they do not drive cars themselves.
Whether they accept modern conveniences depends on what they think the impact will be on their Amish community.
“The fear of the car was that it would separate families,” Kraybill explained. “The horse and buggy kept the community linked together.”
Now, the question is: Will horses and buggies divide the wider community?
This excerpt from a comment beneath Hawkes’ East Hempfield story on LancasterOnline sums up the opposition to allowing for Amish horses in suburbia: “1/2 acre piece of property is TOO DARN SMALL for horses and the horse flies and the horse manure SMELL this is going to bring. In my opinion, this is FAVORITISM leaning towards the Amish community. ... IT IS NOT FAIR to the residents that are already there and I hope and pray this gets denied by the township.”
That’s also essentially the view of Richard Szarko, a Shenck Road resident opposed to the proposed zoning ordinance revision.
As Hawkes explained, East Hempfield currently allows one horse per acre in the large agricultural zone north of Route 283. “Under the proposed change,” he reported, “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.”
In a memorandum to East Hempfield Township, Szarko’s attorney, Veronica Morrison, contended that relaxing the ordinance would benefit “Amish persons at the expense of others” and “advance the practice of the Amish religion.”
East Hempfield supervisor Tom Bennett said this “is about transportation, plain and simple.”
“We don’t regulate the number of vehicles that someone owns,” Bennett said, “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.”
This is a tough one.
We don’t buy into the “religious favoritism” argument. This strikes us as more of a cultural issue.
Many people choose to live in the suburbs for the good schools, the quiet neighborhoods, the convenient access to grocery stores. They didn’t sign up for horseflies and malodorous and messy piles of manure.
But we also sympathize with Amish families for whom farm life no longer is feasible. Why shouldn’t they be permitted to live in suburbia? And no matter how you feel about their use of horses for transportation, the horse and buggy is their vehicle of choice.
The East Hempfield Township supervisors could vote on the proposed ordinance change as early as Aug. 21. They’re also slated to meet Aug. 7.
Here’s what we would suggest to East Hempfield Township residents (and to residents of other municipalities in which this is an issue): Supervisors’ meetings are open to the public, so attend them.
Don’t be nervous about taking your concerns to the officials elected to serve you and your municipality. Ask questions. Listen to what other people have to say. Ask the township officials how they will strictly enforce those manure, odor and noise controls. And, as the old saying goes, don’t put the horse before the cart — maybe this won’t be as major a problem in reality as it seems to be in the abstract.
Our communities are growing ever more diverse. We might not understand the customs and practices of everyone in our neighborhood. But we ought to try.