When most people think of the Amish, certain images come to mind: Quaint. Quiet. Horse-and-buggy.
Drive through certain parts of northeast Allen County, however, and it soon becomes obvious that stereotypes do not always apply. Several large, busy and sometimes noisy Amish-owned industries have gained a toehold on land zoning laws say should be used for agricultural – and some neighbors and officials are looking for ways to relieve the resulting tension before the clash of cultures and interests becomes even more pronounced.
Those tensions were on display Thursday during a County Board of Zoning Appeals hearing on whether to revoke its previous approval of two Amish businesses: a sawmill at 17127 Campbell Road and a nearby pallet manufacturing businesses at 15010 Page Road. The BZA years ago had approved a variance allowing the owners to operate industries on agricultural land, but in each case had granted subsequent expansion requests, to the point where the saw mill property had reached 75 acres and 15,000-foot industrial building and several other structures.
“A concern for rural residents is the number of businesses outside of commercial and industrial areas. When do these businesses become too large?” said Paul Blisk, the county's deputy director for land use. Rezoning land allows a variety of uses within a specific category; a BZA variance is for a specific use members believe would be compatible with the surrounding area.
But as the BZA's threatened revocation and testimony of concerned neighbors made clear, compatibility is in the eye – and ear – of the beholder.
In March, for example, county officials acknowledged concerns about the saw mill's noise, extended hours of operation, exterior storage of materials and other factors. Earlier this month, BZA staff noted that owner John Graber had continued to operate before 6:30 a.m. and had also failed to address noise and other issues.
Kenny Litzenberg, who lives north of the saw mill, told the board that since February he had documented at least 63 violations of the terms under which the business was granted permission to operate.
In one sense, this is not a uniquely Amish issue. As Blisk noted, there are several non-Amish businesses operating in the county on land not zoned for such things.
But because the Amish tend to live in certain areas, their industries tend to be more concentrated. And because Amish do not generally connect to the electric grid, their industries need another source of power. In the saw mill's case, that means a generator – a noisy one, according to some neighbors. And might cultural differences account for the mill's lack of compliance?
Several neighbors spoke in favor of Graber's mill, too. The Amish are “good, hard-working people who just want to make a living,” one said. That's not in dispute, but neither is it relevant. The question is, does more need to be done to protect rural areas from businesses that start small but eventually grow into enterprises that would not be out of place in industrial parks?
Several years ago, the then-county planning director considered establishment of zoning regulations that would have established special rules in Amish areas. That proposal was never adopted, and that's good. The law must apply equally to everyone, regardless of religion or culture.
But now the county is revising its land-use rules again, and this would seem the perfect time to decide just how big businesses in non-industrial areas should be allowed to become. It would be unfair to penalize existing businesses that operate properly, but it would not be unfair to suggest that limits should be well-defined and enforced or that, as County Commissioner Nelson Peters has suggested, new industries be directed to properly zoned industrial parks whenever possible.
The development of rural areas is inevitably contentious. Large industrial farms create concerns and even housing can be controversial, as when the Commissioners recently overturned a Plan Commission decision and allowed construction of a 102-home subdivision near Grabill.
Predictability, consistency and accountability are crucial to the success of any system charged with weighing competing desires and interests. People who buy homes near a saw mill should expect certain things, but people who own saw mills should not be surprised when numerous expansions turn neighb ors into adversaries.
In the end, the BZA decided to allow the two businesses to remain open after the owners submitted plans to address the concerns. And that kind of mutual cooperation and sensitivity – if realized – will keep the peace better than anything the planners come up with.