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Health board upholds order to evict Amish over sewer, water

KENTON — There was a clash of cultures Tuesday when a large number of Amish residents attended a hearing at the Kenton-Hardin Health Department.

An Amish farmer asked the board for mercy as it considered the future of two new homes in their community which do not meet state or local requirements for water and sewer service. But the board sustained its original order for Joni Hershberger and Emory Gingerich’s homes to install acceptable systems, citing health and environmental concerns.

KT Amish hearing

Amish residents listen as Hardin County Director of Environmental Services Shane Lotts explains why the Kenton-Hardin Board of Health is requiring two of their members to replace their sewer and water well systems. The board affirmed its earlier decision following a hearing Tuesday. (TIMES PHOTO | DAN ROBINSON)

The two homes are located within a mile of each other on Dudley Township Road 140. Each home has an agricultural well and an outhouse. Sanitarian Gary Shields testified at the hearing in the meeting room of Job and Family Services that he had met in February 2012 with the Amish bishops and explained to them the traditional privies and wells would no longer be acceptable in new homes.

Despite the warning, said Shields, Hershberger and Henry Yoder constructed new homes over the summer. The house Yoder built is occupied by his daughter and son-in-law, Gingerich.

Neither home applied for permits and inspections of the properties revealed sewer systems and water wells which did not meet regulations. Shields brought his concerns to the board in November, which issued cease and desist orders on both systems in each house. Both Amishmen appealed the decision, which resulted in Tuesday’s hearing.

The meeting was attended by nearly 100 people, with Amish and English crowded shoulder to shoulder in the meeting room, through the hallway and into the lobby. More room was needed for the TV cameras and media who recorded the proceedings.

Prosecutor Brad Bailey conducted the hearing, assisting the Amish farmers with the legal process taking place. He called Shields to testify in the case against Gingerich to open the proceedings.

The sanitarian said the privy constructed at the house is too close to the house and covers a concrete vault which drains into a field tile. The solids, Gingerich reportedly told Shields, are removed from the vault and disposed of in a nearby woods.

There is a potential for the sewage to get into the environment, said Shields, in both the drain and the solid waste in the woods. The results could be the spread of disease, he said.

The well on the property is not designed for potable water, meaning it is safe for livestock or irrigation purposes, but not for human consumption, said Shields.

He shared information with both farmers about pump systems which would work at their farms, but was told the Amish opted to keep the systems they have always used.

Director of Environmental Services Shane Lotts then presented his concerns with the systems at the homes. Both he and Shields had visited the Amish houses many times in hopes of convincing them to install wells and sewers they could approve, but with no positive results.

He recalled one visit in which Gingerich said he had no intentions of complying with the health department’s orders.

“I think I asked you what you were going to do about it,” recalled Gingerich.

“Well, this is what we are doing about it,” responded Lotts regarding the hearing.

The health board is not singling out the Amish community, noted Bailey in his closing remarks. They are only requiring them to comply with orders consistent with everyone else in the county.

“We are not here to pick on you in particular,” said the prosecutor. “But this has the potential of being something bigger than Henry Yoder if we don’t contain it.”

But in his statement to the board, Yoder said he felt the Amish were being denied their religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The world is changing quickly with new technologies, he said.

“But our goal is to live simple lives,” said Yoder. “We feel your requests are undermining our simple ways of life. Our plea is to live in peace among our fellow citizens … We humbly plea for a variance. We don’t believe in lawsuits so we plea for mercy.”

The board had three options, said Bailey. It could sustain the order or withdraw it. Or it could modify its earlier decisions, he said.

Following a short closed session, the eight members of the board returned and announced it had agreed to sustain the order out of concern for public safety and health, but also for consistency in enforcement and concern for the environment.

“I don’t question the Amish can practice their religion,” said board member Terry Keiser. “This has the potential to affect the health of all of Hardin County.”

Once the pollution gets into the area’s aquifer, said Keiser, there is no reversing the impact.

“That is something that should be very near and dear to all of us,” he said.

The case against Hershberger followed with the same results. He presented the board with a letter from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency saying its tests had determined the water is safe to drink.

Shields said Tuesday was the first he had seen the letter, but the results only said there was no chloroform in the water. It wasn’t a complete study, he said.

Hershberger at one point asked to make a statement on the record, but when told by Bailey he would need to speak into a tape recorder, he decided against it.

The board will present the men with a written decision within a few days, said Bailey. After receiving that information, the two Amish farmers will have a limited amount of time to appeal the board’s decision to the Hardin County Common Pleas Court. They will be allowed to stay in the in their homes during the appeals process, he said.

“I will have to think about it,” said Hershberger of the appeal. “But I don’t think we will be doing anything we don’t do now.”

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