The County Commissioners of Wayne County, Indiana, have concluded that the Amish can continue to use county roads, but the issue has provoked a lot of controversy over the past month.
A proposed ordinance that would have been potentially devastating to the Amish had been brewing in the County Commissioners office this summer. It would have forbidden vehicles with steel wheels, such as horse-drawn buggies, from using county roads, and it would have imposed a fine of $1,000 for violations. The issue was discussed at length by the Richmond Palladium Item on August 31. The commissioners are concerned that the steel wheels on Amish buggies cause more damage to asphalt road surfaces than vehicles with rubber tires. The newspaper story includes three color photos of rural roads, two of which show damage purportedly made by the steel wheels of the buggies.
In an emotional meeting on August 30, the Commissioners denied, in the presence of five Amish representatives, that their proposed ordinance had any discriminatory intent. One commissioner defended the ordinance and indicated that it was not intended in any way to harm the Amish. “I’m thrilled they’re here, I hope they stay and I hope more come,” he asserted. Another commissioner, also a supporter of the ordinance, choked up when she commented to the five Amish men at the meeting, “I respect the Amish for what you do.”
The meeting concluded with an agreement that the county would contact other Indiana counties to see how they have handled the problem. The Amish representatives, who said they were unaware their vehicles damaged roads, agreed to discuss the matter within their community to see if they could find possible solutions. They invited the commissioners to their farms to inspect the tires on their equipment and vehicles.
One country resident, Jim Reed, spoke up at the meeting to condemn any discrimination against the Amish. “Why are we picking on one group of people?” Reed asked. The commissioners responded that they acknowledged that rubber tires damage roads also, but they felt that the steel wheels cause even more damage.
Over the following weeks the Palladium Item carried additional articles, editorials, and letters to the editor, all condemning the apparent discrimination of the proposed ordinance. A local farmer, Brad LaMar, wrote a letter on September 4 confessing that he had just caused a bit of damage to the edge of a paved road with his old John Deere 4020 tractor while he was carrying a large bale of hay.
He said he had been talking about it with some guys at the local coffee shop. They apparently agreed with his sentiment that “in an agricultural part of a country which was founded on diversity, it is unfortunate if we have an attitude of bigotry in Wayne County government.” Even though he has a small tractor with rubber tires, he offered to pay the $1,000 fine. “If it’s good for the Amish, it’s good enough for the rest of us,” LaMar concluded.
A letter to the paper from Richard and Martha Dickens on September 15 argued that the Amish always pay their taxes, the same as every other property owner, so their taxes quite appropriately should go to road repairs. The commissioners “should not disrupt hundreds of years of Amish religious orders and traditions,” they wrote. Another letter the same day argued that since the Amish do not make any use of the school taxes they pay—they send their children to their own schools—perhaps some of their school tax money could be shifted to the road department for repairs. Another argued that the proposed ordinance violates the religious beliefs of the Amish.
The Palladium Item editorialized on the 15th that there are additional issues that need to be considered. A county ordinance in 2003 had levied a fee of $40 per horse-drawn vehicle, with the accumulated funds to be spent on road repairs. That ordinance did not mention the issue of steel wheels, but it did mention an existing Indiana state law that already prohibited the use of steel wheels on roads, though vehicles pulled by horses were exempt.
The paper wondered what had happened to the money already collected by the county from the Amish fees? Also, how could the county impose an ordinance that appeared to conflict with state law? It also questioned why the county allowed massively heavy trucks to drive on public roads, since they probably cause a great deal of damage, but it was proposing to forbid the relatively light Amish buggies.
With all of the criticism, the Commissioners on September 20 discovered they were able to find a fair solution. Instead of a sweeping ordinance forbidding all steel wheels, they will only prohibit heavy equipment with steel wheels from using public highways. Horse-drawn buggies will be exempt from the new ordinance. One of the county commissioners commented, “it’s strictly those tractor tires, nothing to do with these buggies…They’re not doing that much damage.” The commissioners are scheduled to visit some Amish farms today, September 28, to look at the tires on their equipment. They plan to pass their new ordinance in October.
The Palladium Item concluded, in an editorial two days ago, that the commissioners should be congratulated for their wise resolution of the issue. The Amish make few if any uses of the public treasury, and “in every way that we can imagine, they are the perfect neighbors.” Obviously reflecting on the public outcry about the issue, the editorial added that the Amish may have learned “in response to this proposed restrictive ordinance, that they have many friends.”
This Indiana story contrasts with a similar news report nearly two years ago. A local ordinance in Centre County, Pennsylvania, discriminated against some Amish people by prohibiting residents in one township from owning horses. It appeared as if the Amish would be forced to sell their homes and move.
One can suspect that the difference might be the strong public support for the Amish in Wayne County, which helped prompt the elected officials to find a compromise, compared with negative attitudes in the local township in Pennsylvania. As the public learns that the Amish can be good neighbors, which has obviously happened in Wayne County, they will more readily accept their differences and champion their right to live their peaceful lives in their own way.