“When have so many people been inconvenienced by so few who do so little?” Dr. Steven Siepser was the first of several speakers at a township meeting in rural Chester County recently, arguing against a proposed ordinance that would have an enormous impact on the area’s equine industry. “This is a situation where three residents on Hilltop View Road, sparked by one, felt that the initiation of a horse facility that gave lessons, that had events, would be disturbing to her and her neighbors,” he said. These residents hired an attorney, he continued, “to bring their new neighbors to their knees, basically, and welcome them to the community by suing them.”
Newlin Township Supervisor Janie Baird says that they plan to vote on the ordinance at the October 13 meeting. They have been working on this ordinance for more than a year, after numerous complaints from residents and a threatened lawsuit compelled the township to investigate. What they found was that the existing ordinance, approved in 1980, had never been enforced. “We really hated it to come to this. It’s been really divisive in the community, but we were faced with a lawsuit to enforce our zoning,” Baird said.
The meeting was packed with people who were opposed to the ordinance. Although the people who spoke were passionate, worried about what the ordinance would do to their businesses and occasionally angry, they and the supervisors were respectful and civil.
“Don’t Fix Something That Isn’t Broken”
Snuggled along the West Branch of the Brandywine Creek, Newlin Township is home to fewer than 1,300 people and 500 households as of the 2010 census. Of the township’s 7,700 acres, more than half are conserved and protected from development. From a horse-eye view, the area near Unionville and Kennett Square is just about the perfect place to be a horse. Iconic farms, operated by Olympic heroes and heroines, training facilities that are unparalleled, hills just begging for galloping—what’s not to like? The same rustic charm that makes the township so alluring apparently makes some residents nervous. A narrow road with too many horse trailers is ostensibly the casus belli for the neighbors.
The proposed ordinance makes a distinction between a commercial and a private equine facility. A commercial facility is defined as providing boarding, lessons or clinics/competitions in exchange for money. The ordinance would require a farm to have three acres for the first horse and two acres for each additional horse, if the facility qualifies under the definition of a commercial barn. The 1980 ordinance, which was never enforced, required two acres for the first horse and one acre for each additional horse at a boarding facility.
Additionally, the ordinance places restrictions on the size and location of indoor arenas, and limits outdoor equine activities to daylight hours. The ordinance also mandates off-street parking.
Laura Shannon, who owns Heather Hill Farm, spoke about the hardship this ordinance will cause people like her, who rely on boarders to help keep the farm open. “Almost all of us have taken in boarders at one time or another, primarily to maintain our properties to the highest environmental and aesthetic standards. Some of us are horse professionals who make our livings on our properties. The three-two (three acres for the first horse and two for each additional horse) has no basis in fact, particularly among horse people,” she says. Shannon applauds the township’s commitment to protecting the land, which is one of the reasons this new ordinance has been drafted. But, she says that applying the ordinance only to commercial facilities is not logical if land preservation is indeed paramount, since it doesn’t apply to farms where other grazing animals live. “The good news is that if you drive through Newlin Township, all you see is beautifully kept horse farms, well-managed pastures and horses in good flesh.”
Farms that are not in compliance with the new ordinance would need to apply for a variance, at a cost of $1,500, and there may be legal fees involved, particularly if the variance is denied. Shannon says the ordinance is discriminatory, targeting small businesses. “What about private horse farms, which are not covered by this ordinance,” she asked.
As Baird pointed out, the ordinance applies only to operations that are considered commercial. “If you have your own horses on your own property and do not offer lessons or boarding, etc., the proposed ordinance does not apply to you.” Presumably, as several of the residents pointed out, if you have only your own horses on your property, you could have as many horses as you want. So, they wonder, what is the purpose of the three acres/two acres rule?
Shannon says that she fears that small businesses such as hers will be forced to sell, opening the way for development of the pristine farmland. She urged the supervisors to reconsider. “Do not pass something that is indefensible and irrational. Please don’t fix something that isn’t broken.”
Ed Brown, another resident, questioned what the ordinance would achieve. “We have a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs who got everybody worked up, and now you have this ordinance. What is the purpose of all this? What you’re doing here is putting in arbitrary rules that basically will end up putting the township in an illegal taking, an illegal taking of value that’s going to cost the township.” He said the township will ultimately have to make people whole after the value of their property decreases as a result of the proposed ordinance.
History Repeats Itself
Land squabbles are staples of our country’s discourse. From disputes between ranchers and farmers, developers and land owners, to conflicts over water rights, the debates rage on in coffee shops, town halls and state legislatures. They’ve often become the stuff of history.
In 1764, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon arrived at a farm near Embreeville, Pennsylvania—embarking on a quest to settle a rancorous and frequently violent border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The astronomer and the surveyor would spend years hacking their way through woods, slogging through marshes and battling weather, fatigue and occasional bands of Native Americans who were not amused by these strangers setting boundaries on their land. What became the Mason-Dixon Line formalized the borders of Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Today, close by the Star Gazer’s Stone which marks the spot where Mason and Dixon began their measurements, this latest iteration of the land use debate is pitting Newlin Township neighbor against neighbor.
Better Without an Ordinance?
Olympian Jessica Ransehousen, who owns Blue Hill Farm, pointed out that horse farms such as hers are immaculate and well-kept. “We have our pastures looking like the lawn. How many do that here—we all do it here, except for the cattle,” she says, noting that the cattle farms are not considered problems for the township. “That looks like hell. Sorry but it does. You may be cooking up the wrong tree; and you ought to be looking at what is beautiful and what isn’t and you should be appreciative of what is good.”
Ed Brown, who owns one of the parcels in the preserved area that used to be the King Ranch, believes the controversy borders on the ridiculous. “Here we are in the midst of a little bit of ridiculousness, truthfully. And you talk about this travesty of what the law was in 1980 and it’s never been adhered to but the fact of the matter is, you couldn’t have any better area if it were adhered to. You have one of the most pristine, beautiful areas in horse country anywhere.”
But Baird points out that the township had few options once the threat of a lawsuit was issued. Because the activities at one particular farm seemed to be the focus of the complaints, Baird said the township was stuck. “Because our township has been lax in enforcement, and there have been no complaints, we were presented with the fact that we had to stop everybody or make everybody go to a zoning hearing.” The 1980 ordinance did not allow for riding schools, or horse boarding in residential districts. Since there are now so many boarding farms and riding schools—not to mention horse shows and clinics—they felt they had to develop an ordinance that recognized what is actually going on. She says you can’t make rules that apply to just one individual, and it’s in the best interests of all the residents of the township if there are zoning regulations.
“We didn’t have zoning until 1980, and because we didn’t have zoning the Strasburg waste site was put in,” she says. That waste site is a superfund site that took years of remediation before the land could be used. Because there was no zoning in place to prevent the use of the 22-acre site as a landfill, residents lost a four-year battle to stop the landfill. The site is today surrounded by a chain link fence; beneath the green hill, there are channels to direct water leaching through the landfill’s contents into treatment basins. Capping the landfill required more than 400,000 cubic yards of soil. Future use of the site will be limited due to the ongoing decomposition of garbage underneath the cap.
“How do we protect the township?” she wonders. “Not everybody has horses in the township. We can’t predict what’s going to happen when someone sells their farm. In the past there was a polo field. Nobody ever complained and they didn’t abuse it; but they could have.”
Township Solicitor John Good explained that even if the 1980 ordinance were enforced today, most of the equine activity would still fall outside the law. “The current ordinance does not allow 99 per cent of what takes place in the township now with regard to equine activity.” He said that boarding horses, subject to the criteria in the ordinance, is a use permitted by right. That is, it does not need to be reviewed by any government agency, provided the zoning standards are met. That means, in Newlin Township, under the existing ordinance, a boarding facility is required to have two acres for the first horse and one acre for each additional horse.
But the 1980 ordinance does not allow horse shows, and, Baird says, riding schools and horse boarding are not permitted in residential districts. That ordinance permitted residents to keep and ride their own horses.
Ben Barnett, who owns Laurel Hill Farm with his wife, Missy Shaffer, received a standing ovation from the crowd after he spoke. “As the original targets, we’ve been living this unfortunate issue for the past 16 months.” He urged the supervisors to reconsider the ordinance, and to work with the horse and farm owners to come up with something that would not place onerous burdens on people who have been operating boarding and training facilities for years.
“With the direct input of people who know horses and have horse farms, and have some skin in the game, we could do far better than the current proposal. A better amendment based on consensus and common sense will actually allow this board and this township to put this issue behind us and focus on the real challenges like rebuilding our roads and opposing the massive townhouse development proposed for Embreeville,” he said.
Lisa Thomas, who has become the unofficial spokesperson for the equestrian community, appealed for compromise, even as she reiterated opposition to the proposed ordinance. She said that the equine community had come to the meeting to ask the supervisors to stop the ordinance, and to look for compromise. She said that she understood that the supervisors had heard the arguments against the ordinance “a million times over” and that the process has worn everyone out. But she asked the supervisors to consider working more directly with the horse owners to work out an ordinance that makes sense for all parties. “I know you’ve spent a lot of money on this and a lot of time, but we want you to come together with a committee that represents our area, and we can sit down and hash this out to come up with a reasonable ordinance. We just want it to get resolved.”
Thomas had started an online petition against the ordinance on Change.org, and announced that they had already received almost 1400 signatures. She presented the supervisors with copies of the signed petitions.
Barnett said that he believes the ordinance runs counter to what is best for Newlin Township and its residents. “Open preserved space is what makes Newlin unique. Most of that preservation is done by private individuals with their own money, many of which happen to own horse farms. You need to create incentives for those farm owners, particularly those with small tracts, to hold onto their land and keep it open and to resist the development that plagues so many other townships.”
Baird maintains that the process that resulted in the development of this ordinance has been long, and there were many opportunities for all residents to comment and provide input. “We have tried to be as open as possible. Several of the folks that spoke (at the meeting) had been to the meetings. Several had sent multiple letters to the township. We have read them all.” But she says it is the supervisors’ collective responsibility to ensure that future uses of the land are consistent with the best interests of the township. And that can’t happen without zoning.
“I can’t help what happened 20 years ago, that someone didn’t enforce the zoning. I wasn’t on the board then,” she says. “How can you not have any restrictions over what’s going to come in the future?” She says that anyone in the township who wishes to may apply for zoning exceptions based on the 1980 ordinance, which is technically still in effect. “They can apply right now if they don’t like the new ordinance. If they get a complete application in, they get to go to a zoning hearing under the old ordinance.” But those applications must be received before the supervisors’ vote on the new ordinance, which is likely to take place October 13.