The Newlin Township Board of Supervisors. Left to right: Bob Pearsal, Bill Kelsall, Janie Baird.
Was it the end of the controversy, or the beginning of a new chapter? When the Newlin Township (Chester County) Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on October 13 to adopt an ordinance regulating commercial equine operations, the jam-packed room erupted in a chorus of “Shame on you! Shame!” The ordinance requires any commercial equine facility to have a minimum of three acres for the first horse on the property and two acres for each additional horse (the three and two rule). Further, any facility hosting an event, such as a horse show, must provide off-street parking; and outdoor commercial activities will be limited to daylight hours.
The ordinance applies to all equine facilities, except private farms not providing lessons, boarding or training. It also does not apply to Pony Club or the Cheshire Hunt, both of which were operating in the area prior to 1980. A heated debate has consumed the equine community and its supporters for months now, since the supervisors began public discussion of the ordinance.
Janie Baird, who chairs the Board of Supervisors, began the meeting with a summary of the many meetings that had preceded the vote, and reminded the crowd that she, too, owns and rides horses. “I’ve had my own horses for the past 34 years, 28 years in Newlin Township. I am the caregiver, the stall mucker, the nurse and the lover of horses,” she said. “Over the past 15 months I have spent countless hours on this issue.” She said that she had walked most of the roads in the township, looking for farms and trying to speak to every horse farm owner. She reiterated that the board is not targeting the community’s horse farms. Instead they’re trying to protect the township from potential future problems.
“The proposed ordinance has been proposed to create a mechanism to deal with less-than-desirable operations that may occur in the future,” she said. “Horse owners generally take good care of their land; however some others may come along who do not have the same protective resolve that we do and we need to protect the land for the future of Newlin.”
Newlin Township, just thirty miles from Philadelphia, is very rural, with just 500 households and more than half of its 7700 acres in preservation. It is home to Olympic riders of many disciplines from across the globe, top breeders and trainers and the infrastructure to support them.
Grilled by Residents, Supervisors Defend Actions
Baird’s contention that everyone with a stake in this matter had numerous opportunities to object is itself part of the debate. “Why would they not be obligated to send out a mass mailing to the township residents?” Lisa Thomas wondered. She has been the unofficial spokesperson for the equine group, and took issue with the supervisors’ assertions that people simply didn’t seem interested in the ordinance and that they don’t understand it. She said that many of the people who own small farms in the area were stunned to find out what was happening. She said that legal ads placed in newspapers that nobody reads may be the letter of the law, but they do not fulfill its spirit. “How can they say that people don’t get it? There has not been appropriate education. And there has not been appropriate publishing of this,” she said.
The supervisors described a process in which many people contributed opinions and expertise. “First off, we are not an anti-horse township,” Assistant Supervisor Bill Kelsall explained. “We are not in any way against small businesses. We are pro small businesses. This is an attempt to simplify our current ordinance. It was not written by any one person here, it was written by about 11 people.” It’s unclear who those 11 people were, but they were apparently not at the meeting, nor was the township’s attorney.
Even as he defended the ordinance though, Kelsall equivocated on some of its provisions, such as the so-called three and two rule. “I personally am going to leave it open for later as to whether or not that will be a special exception. I don’t think that’s super important at this time.” He said he believed some people would have trouble meeting that requirement. He also said that the ordinance’s restrictions on horse shows should be viewed with flexibility. Kelsall did not want to comment on the ordinance before residents had a chance to speak, but once he did begin speaking, he almost seemed on the verge of voting against it. “I noticed in going over the ordinance—we don’t have to modify this tonight—small horse events, I’m going to say, for example, pick a small property. They offer 4H to have a small horse show. I think we should modify that so they don’t need a zoning hearing.”
Bob Pearsal, the third supervisor on the board, somewhat defensively remarked that there were more residents in the township than the overflow crowd at the meeting. “There’s about 900 residents that are not here tonight that vote,” he said. “So what I call the silent majority, okay? They didn’t come out here. They voted for the board of supervisors to do things for them on behalf of them for the best interests of the township for the greater good of this township.” There were audible groans from the audience, but he continued. “They’re home watching Monday Night Football, reading a book, writing a letter to somebody, maybe studying for an exam…whatever the case may be. They’re not here because they believe in the system, they believe the system works.”
It could not have been easy to sit before a group of polite but obviously unhappy residents, so it was not surprising that the supervisors exhibited some defensiveness. Despite that, though, there were awkward moments as each of the supervisors tried to explain why it was imperative to vote on this ordinance in this form at this time.
An Unenforced Ordinance Languished for 30 Years
Pearsal said that the 1980 ordinance, which was rarely enforced, was even more punitive, and had it been enforced, several of the stable owners would be out of luck and out of options. That ordinance required a 10-acre minimum for commercial operations. “Under the old ordinance, the minimum size would be 10 acres. For all of you out there that have 9.9 or less acres you would be out of business.” Regardless of that ordinance’s requirements, though, the three supervisors were encouraging residents opposed to the new ordinance to apply for recognition under the 1980 one—and to request variances. The fact is that the township was faced with an ultimatum because there had been virtually no enforcement of the 1980 ordinance. Residents who were unhappy about increasing horse trailer traffic on some of the township’s narrow, winding roads had petitioned the township to start enforcing its rules.
Baird had said that they threatened a lawsuit. Nevertheless, she defended the supervisors and the work they’ve done over the years on behalf of the residents and the township’s unique character. “This board has done more than any board in history to keep Newlin open.”
Laura Shannon, who owns Heather Hill Farm, challenged the legality of the ordinance and the supervisors’ contention that they were acting in the best interests of the township. She said that Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code asserts that zoning ordinances should promote, protect and facilitate public health, safety, moral and general welfare of the residents of the township, and further, that “all ordinances are to preserve prime agriculture and farmland, considering topography and present use.”
Shannon said this ordinance was demonstrably inconsistent with the state’s intentions and even with Newlin Township’s other regulations. “I don’t believe the ordinance does anything to preserve farmland, but rather I think it provides incentives for owners to sell it off and break it up.” She said that the township’s own regulations stipulate that ordinances do the minimum necessary to achieve their goals, and the ordinance goes too far. “This proposed ordinance is intrusive, it is counterproductive to the horse-owning community, and I believe it will have a negative impact on the township. I think it is a prime example of government overreach and overregulation, with no upside to recommend it.”
She said that she understood that the ordinance was costly and time-consuming to produce, but that did not mean it was good. “It’s unfortunate that many of us don’t believe we got a good product.” She urged the supervisors to “save everybody some money, revise the ordinance and get it right.”
Legal Trouble Ahead?
Thomas said that the response to the vote among the community of stable owners was profound disappointment. They believe that their positions were not adequately considered by the people who drafted the ordinance. The residents are considering what options they have. “There are a couple of land zoning attorneys that were friends with some of the affected land owners,” she explained. “They have attended some of our private planning meetings. No one has paid them and they have not been retained. But they have offered some advice.” While they are not planning legal action against the ordinance at this time, she did say that other possibilities are under consideration. “There has been research into the ability to ask for the board to either resign, or to seek having them recalled,” she said.
Ben Barnett and Missy Schaffer own Hilltop View Farm, the focus of the neighbors who have petitioned the township to enforce its ordinance regarding horse farms. “The ordinance in its current form,” Barnett said, “it’s not important how it began. What’s important is how it ends.” He said that the ordinance won’t end the disputes, and it won’t solve the problems that led to the township’s actions. “Think for a second on a practical level,” he said. “You’re going to have to double check the list of farms, send letters to all those farm owners to let them know this ordinance affects them.”
He said that the township could possibly become the focus of legal actions, in which case the costs increase quickly. “You’re going to have to make a tough call about whether you’re going to enforce this ordinance, or whether you’re going to rely on disgruntled neighbors to do it for you. And if you choose to enforce the ordinance against some horse farms and not others, there is a good chance there’s going to be litigation.”
Take Time to Get it Right
The people who spoke on behalf of the horse farms repeatedly asked why the township supervisors would not consider taking more time—time that might result in getting this ordinance right for everyone in the township. Resident Susan Hoffman said that she appreciated the amount of work that had already been invested in the ordinance. But she wondered whether more time might create more quality legislation.
“How come you can’t continue to use the same procedures? Keep working on it before you vote on it? Where is it stated in the state guidelines that a board can only have 10 meetings or 20 meetings or 30 meetings before you vote on an ordinance?” She noted that it was clear that most of the people at the meeting didn’t think the ordinance was ready yet. “I propose to you that the meetings should stop when—and only when—the ordinance reflects the will of all the people.” She said that the ordinance as written was an invitation to litigation. “You can do it right the first time, or you can do it right the second time, after residents bombard you with litigation.”
In the end, the ordinance passed, to the chagrin of almost everyone who had come in hopes that they could change the supervisors’ minds. Residents who wished to be covered under the 1980 ordinance were given five days to apply to be grandfathered in. Pearsall explained that people would have to go before the zoning board, pay $1,500 and apply for a special exception and a variance. “You have to specify that you’re requesting both,” he said. Baird added that “Once you get through the process you are good forever, and your property is good forever. Your permission stays with the property forever.”
Baird’s closing remarks, as the residents left the room, reflected the complicated relationship that has evolved between supervisors and residents. “We love you all. We love horses. Excuse me, please. You have up to five days from tonight.”