B y Dan King
Just when it seemed that all discrepancies and arguments about how to handle Whitehall’s growing Amish population had screeched to a halt, a short letter from the county got the pot stirred up again.
The letter came from former Whitehall Code Enforcement Officer John Ward, who resigned in June, after receiving some criticism about his policies toward the Amish. In the letter, Ward details to an Amish resident a few pieces of information and regulations that he will need to meet, in order to receive a building permit, which the Amish man had applied for.
This letter served as a rabble-rousing catalyst for a lengthy discussion about the Amish.
Local officials said that the Amish have been following proper protocol and that once construction of any actual residence begins, they have been applying for building permits through the county.
“I talked with some of the Amish and they have been sending money for permits on any actual houses.” Vern Scribner, Whitehall’s new code enforcement officer stated.
Scribner lives near much of the Amish population, he is in constant contact and often times works with them on projects.
All board members in attendance seemingly agreed that if the Amish were sending money and applying for permits, the rest of that process becomes a county issue and is no longer in the town’s hands.
However, officials were concerned about making sure that the permit requirements are strictly enforced, to prevent a slippery slope of other residents no longer applying for building permits.
“I don’t want people thinking that they don’t have to apply for building permits on houses, because they do have to,” Town Supervisor George Armstrong said.
Safety of the Amish
Things got heated when the topic switched over to the safety of the Amish residents and how to ensure they are protected. Armstrong and Town Councilman John Rozell went back and forth on the issue; Armstrong concerned with the safety, and Rozell concerned with letting them live their lives.
The hypothetic situation that was used by both was, if there were a fire at a temporary Amish residence, without battery powered smoke detectors and with double digit people crammed into the second story of the house.
In a passionate manner, Armstrong explained his concern about the safety of Whitehall’s Amish, “I’m tickled to death that they’re here, but with a little effort they can be in compliance with our rules and regulations, for their own safety.”
Rozell responded with, “I understand that George (Armstrong) is concerned with their safety, but I want to keep these people here. I don’t want to drive them out, by telling them how to live their lives.”
“From what I’ve gathered, they see everything as God’s will for them.” Rozell added, “Whether it’s a fire or getting rained on while they farm, everything is God’s will for them.”
“They need to have emergency egresses,” Armstrong stated, “If there is a fire at an Amish residence, the firemen will be going to it, whether the Amish want them to or not.
Despite the lengthy discussion on the topic of Amish safety, there will be no mandate requiring the Amish to have battery powered smoke detectors in their homes.
“My only concern with the Amish is life safety issues.” Armstrong added, “If people want to paint me as against the Amish because I care about their safety, then so be it.”
Board Sees Economic Benefits, Hopes to Keep Amish Here
The final talking point about the Amish situation, revolved around the resoundingly positive economic impact that has been observed since the Amish flocked to Whitehall.
The board unanimously agreed that this has been a huge positive for the community and board members want to do everything in their power to keep the Amish here.
“It’s like bringing in a multi-million dollar company to Whitehall.” Scribner said.
“They pay their taxes, they have no insurance, no Social Security, so we don’t support them once they turn 65 and they are hard working people.” Rozell added.
Board members noted that many tourists had been coming to the area to purchase goods from the Amish and to simply witness the Amish way of life.
Rozell and Councilwoman Stephanie Safka were concerned that if some of the safety regulations advocated by Armstrong were put into place that the town could drive the Amish population to someplace else.