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In Centre County, Amish men challenge rules on owning, housing horses

Sunday, January 05, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

NITTANY, Pa. -- Walker Township Ordinance 167 addresses where people can keep horses.

It doesn't address religious freedom. It makes no mention of culture clashes.

Online Map:
Centre County



And it certainly doesn't touch on claims that this rural township is practicing bias, supposedly trying to shoo frugal local Amish residents from villages that are growing more upscale as the population spills outward from the State College area and its economic dynamo, Penn State University.

Those issues, though, will be the heart of the argument this week when a pair of Amish men go before a Centre County district justice, challenging recently issued zoning citations that say that the horses that pull their buggies can't be kept in their backyard stables.

"You bet I'll bring it up," said James Bryant, a lawyer from nearby Millheim who has taken the case for the Amish. "It's an impediment to the Amish. ... It's like a poll tax."

Township officials say Ordinance 167 is just a helping of common sense, keeping horses and kindred problems such as odor and flies out of the villages that are Walker Township's population centers.

The ordinance, passed in November 2000, actually loosened restrictions for horse ownership in some parts of the township, cutting from the number of acres a landholder had to have to keep a horse from 10 acres to 2.

But the residential zoning in Nittany, where the two Amish men who were cited live, bars owning horses altogether.

That's discrimination, according to Bryant, forcing the Amish to move from villages and back to farms if they want to use the horse-and-carriage transit mandated by the leaders of their interwoven culture and religion.

Daniel King, 26, one of the Amish men cited, doesn't frame his thoughts in terms of public good or discrimination and constitutional rights.

"If we can't have the horse, we can't live in this area," he said simply, as he sat at his kitchen table last week, bathed in the light from a propane-fueled hanging lamp. "I think people will be forced out. It's not going to happen right away, but people will be forced out."

The setting for the dispute is one of Centre County's eastern edges, 25 miles up Nittany Valley from the hubbub of Penn State and its environs. At the far edge of Walker Township is the unincorporated village of Nittany, a cluster of about 280 homes.

The township has only 3,300 people, according to the 2000 census, but that's 17.8 percent more than it had a decade earlier. And -- given low land costs, a new highway that shortens the commute to State College and an expanding sewer and water system -- it's probably 10 percent to 15 percent less than it will have a decade from now, said Bob Jacobs, the county's assistant planning director.

"If you have a lot to sell," said Charles Snyder, a township supervisor, "you have a buyer."

And here, where two-lane Route 64 is the main street past a loosely packed row of houses, is where Daniel Beiler, a 30-year-old bachelor, bought a five-acre lot a few years ago. Then, at the start of last year, came King and his new wife, settling into a modest, one-story home just up the street.

Beiler is a welder working nearby and King, a carpenter working with a non-Amish builder handling some of the steady State College-area home building trade.

Both are part of a growing share of Amish -- now more than 50 percent of Amish men -- forced by economic realities to leave farming and take up trades and crafts sanctioned by church fathers.

"Farming is extraordinarily expensive," said Donald Kraybill, nationally recognized expert on the Amish and professor of sociology and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County. "It's much easier to start a small business."

But after Beiler and King moved in -- each with a horse and carriage for their backyard stables -- they were told that Ordinance 167 barred the animals.

Then came a failed challenge before the township zoning hearing board.

Now come citations -- fines not spelled out -- that Bryant plans to contest before District Justice Daniel Hoffman on Thursday in a hearing at Bellefonte, the county seat.

"They should have checked into the zoning before they bought the property," Jim Heckman, a township supervisor, said last week. "If you bought property, and they didn't allow cars on the property, wouldn't you have been better off to have checked into it first?"

Bryant, the Amish men's lawyer, said he'd argue before the district justice that giving the horses up isn't an option for the Amish.

To understand that means understanding the Amish horse and carriage as more than the quaint prop of P. Buckley Moss prints. For the Amish, it stems from the biblical admonition in Romans 12:2 to "be not conformed to this world," and the Amish use horse and buggy, along with a rejection of much 21st-century technology, to slip into the world's slow lane.

Besides that, there is the economic reality for the Amish men.

"One of the township people says, 'You can go live in an agricultural area,' " said Beiler, born in Lancaster County and reared in an Amish settlement a valley away from here. "But it's affordable to live here."

"I'd rather be out on five acres somewhere than three-quarters of an acre here," King said, "but the price of land isn't what I can pay for five acres."

The Amish don't always have to use horses and buggies.

Church-enforced rules in most of the 20 or so Amish settlements across Pennsylvania allow members to ride buses or hire non-Amish drivers and vans for long-distance travel -- though seldom on Sundays.

King rides with his eight construction crewmates on the half-hour trip to jobs in the State College area.

But that is the exception. The use of horse-drawn travel most of the time "is meant to limit mobility," said Steve Scott, research assistant at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups. "Fast, easy transportation keeps people away from home, lets them leave when they want."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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