N ew Whitehall Code Enforcement Officer John Ward overwhelmed members of the Whitehall Town Board recently with the stern line he took about Amish construction.
“I think we are all a bit shell-shocked,” Councilman Farrell Prefountain said.
“It did seem a little bit aggressive,” Councilwoman Stephanie Safka said.
Both members of the town board were referring to the 20-minute presentation by Ward, who also works for Washington County Code enforcement.
He presented the board with a laundry list of what he perceives as possible violations of the town building code.
“I could go to those farms and put stop work orders on all of their buildings,” Ward said.
“But I didn’t come here to trash the Amish people. No firm decisions have been made, except possibly those in the building code.”
Ward questioned the Amish custom of building a structure that is half residence and half “machinery shed.”
By this and other practices, Ward maintained the Amish were getting around building permit requirements. His predecessor, Jamie Huntington, earlier this year reported to the board that Amish “pole barns,” with sod floors, did not require building permits.
Both Supervisor George Armstrong and Highway Superintendent Louis Pratt reported that they had been getting complaints from town residents that the Amish were not paying their fair share.
“And it is difficult to tell others the Amish don’t need a building permit when it is only $50 bucks,” Armstrong said.
Councilman John Rozell said the practice of half-residence and half-equipment shed was temporary.
Speaking after Ward had left the meeting, Rozell said he had personally talked with one of the leaders of the Amish community. He said all of the Amish plan on building regular houses that will require the standard $50 building permit.
In the meantime, an Amish spokesman had suggested paying a “temporary living tax.” “And this is a quote from one of their leaders,” Rozell said.
Attorney Erica Sellar Ryan disagreed with Ward’s contention that the Amish were not farmers, as defined by the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law.
Councilman Rozell agreed with Ryan that the Amish met the state standard to qualify as farmers.
“They are Ag-exempt, and they should get it,” Rozell said.
“The cultural difference between us and the Amish is huge,” Councilman Stephanie Safka said. She suggested forming an emissary committee to work with the farming community.
Ryan offered to call Ward’s other employer, Washington County Attorney Roger Wickes, to double check what requirements the Amish must meet.
She also volunteered to supply Ward with a “cheat sheet” of “do’s and don’ts” in dealing with the religious-based community.”
Supervisor Armstrong agreed with Ryan that before Ward took further action, his opinions and positions should be confirmed by Wickes. He also said that “John needs to see that” cheat sheet of Amish customs.
Although willing to have his work double-checked, Ward continue to maintain that he had a job, albeit, an unpopular one, to do. “In Fulton County,” Ward said, “they refused to put in smoke detectors. The fire company had to do it for them.” Locally, Ward expressed concern that run-off from Amish properties –– agricultural, “bath water, culinary,” –– is “draining into the Champlain and Mettowee.”
“It will take time,” Ward said. He then repeated, “This has nothing to do with the Amish. I feel that they’ve created a split subdivision. But I didn’t come here to trash the Amish people. Everybody thinks that I’m clashing with these Amish people. And I’m not.”