Just over a year ago, Ron Samsel emerged from a Philadelphia courtroom victorious. He had fought the good fight. He had won. And in his victory, he had helped establish a precedent for horse farm owners across Pennsylvania. Today Samsel’s story has taken another dramatic turn, as the recession-battered economy and the downward momentum of the real estate market have nearly crushed him. Once again, Samsel is poised at the brink of disaster. And yet…he remains hopeful.
Last December Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court sided with him in a protracted dispute with the Jefferson Township Board of Supervisors. Samsel had built a horse farm on the 46-acre tract he had purchased. The Township Supervisors said that the horse farm did not qualify as an agricultural enterprise and that Samsel should have sought building permits before erecting the barn and other structures on the property. Samsel and his attorney, Larry Miller, argued that the farm qualified for Pennsylvania’s exemption for agricultural construction, which meant building permits were not required.
After losing his case at the county’s Unified Construction Code Board of Appeals, Samsel appealed to Berks County Court and won. The Township didn’t back down, but filed the case again in the same jurisdiction. They lost again. In October 2010 Jefferson Township took their case against Samsel to Commonwealth Court, which ultimately ruled in Samsel’s favor. “This is what is called a case of first impression,” Miller said at the time. “It will set a precedent for Pennsylvania.”
A Pyrrhic Victory?
Samsel had withstood personal, financial and business losses courtesy of his battle with the township supervisors. Even as he celebrated the Commonwealth Court’s decision, though, he found it hard to reconcile those palpable losses with the intangible fruits of victory. At the time he said that the township supervisors had tried to break him. Now it looks as if he has been broken.
“I’m just leaving them (the township officials) alone. They’re leaving me alone,” he says. The economy has forced many horse owners to give up their horses, and Samsel says he has no boarders at his farm—even though his rate for full care is a rock-bottom $350 per month. His frustration punctuates his account of how desperately he’s tried to attract boarders to his facility. “People call me all the time, asking me to take their horses,” he says. “But I don’t need any more mouths to feed.”
He is trying to sell the farm now—conclusively relinquishing his dream of offering horse owners a place where they could pamper their horses and spoil them—but the real estate market still barely has a heartbeat. Samsel has been in the real estate business for years, and says he has never seen a slump this deep and unrelenting. “I think we hit rock bottom, but we had 7 out of 10 settlements last year that were either foreclosures or short sales. Nobody can get mortgages today it seems.” He is exploring the possibility of selling the farm through the state’s farmland preservation program. The program ran out of money last year, he says, but he has reapplied and hopes that he can get approved this year.
An Unforgiving Business
A year ago he was on the verge of filing a lawsuit against the township for their attempts to thwart his business plans. But that option is off the table now. “The attorneys don’t want to fight against the township,” he says, because they all conduct business sooner or later with the township and don’t want to undermine their opportunities.
Samsel still has a race horse, a Smarty Jones colt, and two brood mares with foals due this spring. The horse business, he says, can be heartbreaking and unforgiving, and he says he is pretty much finished with it. “I’m done. I’m exhausted. I’ve spent everything I had,” he says. He’s lost his home, and is on the verge of losing his farm, unless, he says, he wins the lottery. “That would be my only savior, I think.” He looks ahead to ever-rising costs for feed, utilities, hay and sees very little hope on the horizon.
He and his son are living with his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Caring for the needs of his son and his mother, while facing the economic catastrophe that has devastated his financial life, often overwhelms him. “I have to do what I have to do,” he says. “I’m used to this, but sometimes it gets the better of you.” And yet, there are still shards of optimism that pierce the darkness. “Life goes on, though,” he says. Tomorrow is another day.