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A ‘small city’ in farm country: Amish and Mennonite farmers question proposed development

Amish and Mennonite farmers have farmed Manheim Township in Lancaster County for centuries. A 75-acre development is now being considered for construction in the agricultural heartland, and farmers, many of whom get around by horse and buggy, fear what could be ahead.

An Amish buggy enters the long driveway into the Oregon Dairy supermarket and adjoining farm property in Manheim.
An Amish buggy enters the long driveway into the Oregon Dairy supermarket and adjoining farm property in Manheim.Read moreBRADLEY C BOWER / File Photograph

For centuries, hundreds of Amish and Mennonite farmers in Manheim Township, one of Lancaster County’s prime agricultural heartlands, have tilled the soil, tended to livestock, and carted goods across rural roads by horse and buggy.

Home for them is lush green farmland, uninterrupted for acres and acres save for silos, grazing animals, and narrow roads.

Now comes a plan for a sprawling development, complete with a hotel, restaurant, banquet hall, supermarket, convenience store, and 550 homes slated to rise on 75 acres not far from the fields the farmers have tended for generations.

Oregon Village, as the development would be called, would dramatically reshape this rural corner of Lancaster County, bringing new housing and fresh commerce and creating a modern complex that supporters say would revitalize the town. It would create jobs, bring in $3 million in annual tax revenue, and reimagine the site of a former hotel, closed decades ago and razed in 2008.

“We believe that this plan will save the village as we know it today,” said Victor Hurst, a partner in the project whose family owns the land on which the development would be built. The Hurst family runs Oregon Dairy market, restaurant, and bakery, businesses that would expand with the new development.

At a recent town meeting, Hurst said he envisioned a place “where young people can enjoy their first taste of living independently from their parents, young families can raise their children, the middle-aged enjoy the vibrancy of life, and older folks realize a place where they can age gracefully.”

Critics say the sprawling development would upend the locals’ deeply-rooted lifestyle and signal the start of a construction boom in an area long known for its agriculture. The project, they say, would fundamentally change the character of a farming village that dates to the 17th century.

“This is like plopping a small city in the middle of farmland," said Mary Haverstick, cofounder of the local citizens’ group Respect Farmland. "That’s the problem with this design.”

The group said the development would increase housing in the small Manheim Township village of Oregon by more than tenfold, from about 50 houses to more than 550, a move it says would “forever alter" the rural enclave. And it predicted “massive traffic congestion,” which it said would pose particular hazard for the Amish and Old Order Mennonite who travel by horse and buggy to and from nearby farms.

The land on which Hurst plans to build Oregon Village is zoned for commercial and residential use and set in an area county planners envisioned for growth, but the project needs a conditional-use variance to allow mixed-use development. The developer also needs the township’s permission to widen State Route 272, also known as Oregon Pike, from two lanes to six lanes, building to its widest point at two eight-lane intersections.

Supporters of the project say that would redirect traffic away from smaller roads in the village. Detractors say traffic would be a nightmare — and pose peril for those traveling by horse and buggy.

"I just can’t imagine being in a horse and buggy on a six-lane highway,” said Amish farmer Amos Beiler as he stood in a field in Manheim on a recent sunny morning. “I just don’t know how it’s going to work.”

Beiler’s cousin, Pamela Haver, was more blunt. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” she said.

The proposed development has divided the town and pitted longtime residents against one another at packed township hearings that have gone on for months.

The township’s five-member board of commissioners has heard ardent testimony from both sides as it weighs one of the most contentious issues to come before the board in years. To be sure, the decision that lies ahead will be critical to the future of the town.

“I can say this without any exaggeration at all,” said Dan Sweigart, a member of Respect Farmland. “This is probably the most controversial development project in Lancaster County at least in the last 15 to 20 years. It’s generated a huge amount of community interest.”

Two years ago, the board unanimously rejected an earlier version of the Oregon Village plan because it proposed building on a stretch of preserved land. The new plan avoids that.

But for the variance needed to build a mixed-use development, it falls squarely within the zoning code, officials said.

“A whole lot of people want us to say no” to the project, said Albert B. Kling, president of the board of commissioners. “Many people — particularly people who live in the neighborhood — are opposed to that [development]. It changes things."

Amish and Mennonite farmers whose properties date back generations and directly abut the Hursts’ land strongly oppose the development and say it would disrupt their way of life.

"I feel very much disrespected,” said Old Order Mennonite farmer Lester Oberholtzer as he drove his horse and buggy along local roads on a recent day. “The Hurst family knows that this is going to make it more difficult to farm, and I just feel like they have no respect for their neighbors by doing something like this.”

Outside the Plain Sect, others have concerns, too. Jim Garland, owner of Reflections Restaurant on East Oregon Road, says the plan’s proposal to reroute the road so it would run through Oregon Village would significantly disrupt traffic flow to his eatery and hurt his business.

He and Oberholtzer, along with Mennonite farmer Martin Wenrich, have hired lawyer Julie Miller to try to defeat the project.

Miller said the development’s effect on the town would be massive. “The impact would be enormous,” she said. “The potential of changing everything in that area can’t be overlooked.”

The Hurst family, too, has hired lawyers as it works to persuade the township to approve the project. Those lawyers, Caroline M. Hoffer and Michael W. Davis, did not respond to requests for comment.

Efforts to reach Victor Hurst were similarly unsuccessful.

Preservationists, meanwhile, fear what Oregon Village could mean for the county’s farmland.

“You live here and you see the changes," said Haverstick, of Respect Farmland. "I’ve lived here 50-some years. The traffic is one of the biggest complaints, and the loss of farmland — the sprawl, farm after farm being gobbled up.”

Kling, the township commissioner, said residents were reacting reflexively to change.

“People aren’t real fond of change,” he said. "They yell about increased traffic. Well, traffic increases here anyway, whether you build it or not.”