NICKTOWN – Levi Zook doesn’t want to move his wife and eight children from the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania to New York state but strongly believes he has no choice.
That’s because the 34-year-old farmer and the Andy Weaver Swartzentruber Amish congregation to which he belongs – the most conservative branch of the most conservative sect of Amish – concluded they have no future on the scenic plateau of Barr Township, some 70 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Zook chose his words carefully when asked what prompted the 21-family congregation to begin moving away this year. Zook and the remaining families figure to be gone by spring, he explained, pausing to rein in his horse as he chatted with a reporter standing next to his buggy.
“Well, the sum of it is, the issue as far as moving out, I guess, it started off with the sewage issue.”
That issue erupted in 2008, when some non-Amish neighbors complained that two Swartzentruber families were emptying outhouse buckets at the edge of their farms. The neighbors rightly feared typhoid or cholera in their well water, said William Barbin, an attorney for the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency.
The sewage dispute eventually led to citations, a court order to padlock the clan’s school, and even sent one member to the county jail for three months because he refused to pay fines for state and county sewage violations.
Although many less conservative Amish congregations co-exist with their non-Amish neighbors, the Swartzentruber and other more conservative sects have a history of civil battles when building codes and other laws conflict with their rigid rules for maintaining simple homes.
The fight dragged on for years. Finally, in summer 2011, Swartzentruber bishops from Ohio and New York came to meet with the local bishop, county officials and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The Swartzentruber families agreed to build an underground tank where the outhouse buckets would be emptied and pumped out by a state-licensed firm using more primitive methods in keeping with Amish beliefs.
But the sewage tank has never been used.
Instead, the Swartzentrubers began making plans to move, spurred by increasing land values driven by the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling boom, and concerns, Zook said, that the DEP was also requiring them to use more expensive sand mounds to filter their “gray water” – sewage from bathtubs and sinks, not toilets – instead of cheaper leach fields. The DEP declined to comment for this story.
“We try to be as simple and humble as we can. We don’t have the money to reach around like a lot of people do,” Zook said, using an Amish idiom that equates to making ends meet.
The Pennsylvania group is moving to St. Lawrence County in upstate New York, where some lived before moving to Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, though others may go to Maine or a newer settlement south of Buffalo, N.Y., said Professor Karen Johnson-Weiner, an Amish expert at the State University of New York-Potsdam.
“We’re sort of surprised that doing something because it’s always been done that way is reason enough for doing it that way,” she said, “but for the Swartzentrubers, it is.”
Johnson-Weiner expects the Swartzentrubers will encounter fewer legal problems in New York because that settlement began in 1974 and many of the building code and other issues have already been settled.
Cambria County Judge Norman Krumenacker, who presided over the Pennsylvania sewage dispute, believes the Swartzentrubers are leaving because of the bishop’s “stubborn streak” and laments the decision.
“I learned a lot from them and have tremendous respect for their culture,” said Krumenacker, who even traveled to a Swartzentruber home and met with the group privately to avoid the media. “I was quite impressed with them, but we all have to follow laws whether we think they’re fair or not.”
The subgroup is named for a church leader who split with other Swartzentrubers in Ohio in 1998, which is when they began moving to fertile northern Cambria County.
The Swartzentrubers made headlines soon after moving to Pennsylvania when they challenged a state law requiring bright orange reflective triangles on their buggies. The color clashed with the Swartzentrubers’ austere beliefs and they won a state Supreme Court case and permission to instead use gray reflective tape more in keeping with their beliefs and which, some experts argued, is more visible than the orange triangles anyway.
Swartzentrubers develop their living traditions or ordinances in church business meetings. Because the Amish worship in their homes, not in separate church buildings, the resulting traditions are given a wide berth by the courts as an essential part of the group’s exercise of religious liberty.
Some people misunderstand why they hold so firmly to tradition, said Professor Donald Kraybill, an expert on Amish and other Anabaptist groups at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
“In this conservative group, those issues would be discussed at church business meetings, so there is kind of a divine legitimization of it,” Kraybill said.
Barbin said, in the end, the Swartzentrubers are being true to their consciences, despite the best efforts of the government to accommodate their beliefs.
“I remember going to the house that the judge met at ... and the wife came out and said, `You’re going to keep me from going to heaven. Whose fault is it going to be that I’m going to hell?”’ Barbin said.
“That was the statement, the underlying thought, that showed me we weren’t just dickering over costs.”