SIDNEY – As attorneys, health department sanitarians, and, building inspectors continue to work in finding answers to solve property issues through civil court action with Amish-owned property near Maplewood, the defendants’ attorney says religious freedom is what’s truly on trial.
Local officials claim they have granted variances on several topics, and that maintaining the Amish way of life with a healthy environment has always been a top priority.
The topic will be reviewed during the meeting of the Sidney-Shelby County Board of Health meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16. The meeting will be held at the health department office located at 202 W. Poplar St.
Health Commissioner Steven Tostrick said the meeting will open with an executive session to discuss the lawsuit. He was uncertain if any public announcements would be made regarding the matter.
Defense attorney Richard Schulte, of Vandalia, told the SDN on Sunday that he and his firm have taken on the local court cases pro bono (for free) to help the Amish families maintain their way of life based on their belief.
“Make no doubt about it, this case is about religious freedom. To most, this is just another court case they read about. But to the Amish, this is a traumatic experience against their way of life,” Schulte said.
“When I saw this case, I knew that if I didn’t represent them, the Amish were going to give up more than a way of life,” he added, stating he questioned the aggressiveness of Shelby County officials.
On Oct. 23, 2018, the Sidney-Shelby County Board of Health filed civil lawsuits against four Amish families near Maplewood. The board is seeking the land owners bring their properties into compliance with state health guidelines or have the buildings condemned and vacated.
The ongoing dispute centers on the alleged lack of action by the property owners to remedy their sewage handling system to prevent potential health problems for themselves and adjacent properties. The dispute has gone on for more than a year.
According to online court records, named as defendants are Joseph A. and Mattie E. Schwartz, 21720 State Route 47, Daniel J. and Mary D. Schwartz, 21450 State Route 47, Henry A. and Sarah E. Schwartz, 21690 State Route 47, and, Jacob R. Schwartz, 21500 State Route 47, all of Maplewood.
Authorities are asking the court to declare the properties a nuisance; to bar the families from occupying the properties, comply with the condemnation order, order the razing of all privies on the properties, award civil penalties, and, order the defendants to pay all court costs.
In countersuits filed by the Schwartz families, they are not seeking any compensatory or punitive financial awards but are asking they be allowed to live as their religion tenants state, including a sanitation system as they wish to build.
On Friday, Jan. 11, more than 60 people from area Amish communities, along with neighbors, and two Amish bishops from nearby counties, filled the Shelby County Common Pleas Court courtroom for a settlement hearing in a show of support. The hearing was held behind closed doors.
Shelby County Prosecutor Tim Sell was joined by Assistant Prosecutor Eric Ambos and representatives of the health board and building inspectors in a separate meeting room. The hearing consisted of both sides making proposals and sharing that info with attorneys and concerned parties for consideration.
On Sunday, Sell told the SDN that all efforts taken by officials is to use a priority to maintain the Amish way of life. He said some variances were able to be approved with their lifestyle in mind. However, while there are several health and building issues, not maintaining a healthy environment for the themselves and other area property owners, is something that can’t be accepted.
Sell is claiming the privy issue involves the use of human waste as fertilizer of their crop land. According to guidelines, the waste must be collected from a concrete collection pit by a certified treatment company. A certain amount of chemicals need to be added to the waste to kill all bacteria and enable field application. He claims the Amish want to bypass the treatment process.
Sell contends bypassing the treatment puts the family and possibly neighbors in harm’s way with the contaminated fertilizer.
Shelby County “aggressive”
Schulte said exact privy systems have been approved in Logan County and questions why Shelby County authorities have condemned their homes, including a sawmill attached to one house, stopping their ability to earn a living, to force compliance. He likened the tactics to a form of governmental bullying.
“Shelby County is being more aggressive than any of the other 87 counties in Ohio. Elsewhere they have not gone after Amish families who just want to maintain a simple way of life based on the will of God. They are not used to being part of legal interactions. That’s why this is a challenge on everything they believe in,” Schulte said.
“When they (county officials) condemned the houses where they live seven to 10 days before the final injunction to be removed from the home is when I got involved and exposed them,” said Schulte, who called the actions “egregious.”
In a June 22 letter, Registered Sanitarian Michael McClain reviewed the ongoing violations and issued a 90-day order to obtain full compliance or vacate the buildings. The families had 45 days to obtain permits with construction being completed during the following 45 days.
Court records indicate Schulte and Stephen Behnke, also of Vandalia, were formerly named attorneys for the families on Nov. 15.
Sell told the SDN after the families purchased the property, a new house was built, another had a section added, and two others were non-compliant to basic housing. No building or permits were obtained for any of the new or altered structures.
Building inspectors were scheduled to revisit the properties in question Monday, Jan. 14.
Rob England, Chief Building Officer of Miami County, oversees building inspections in Shelby, Miami, Auglaize, Darke and Mercer counties. He told the SDN that Shelby County officials would be inspecting buildings on the Schwartz properties on Monday.
On Tuesday. England said inspectors were still evaluating their inspections. The results would be reviewed with the health board on Wednesday. He also said as of Monday all media requests were to be referred to Sell.
Schulte said Amish families throughout Ohio have been granted special guidelines on other aspects of their lifestyle. He reasoned allowing them to have their own school with non-certified teachers to instruct youngsters based on their beliefs, as a major example.
“Many times, the EPA just issues orders and you comply, or you don’t. They (the EPA) most times go unchecked,” Schulte said about related investigations. “If you make concessions in these matters, it has to be in the best interest of the client. This is an attack on the Amish way of life.”
Sell said the confab over the issues have gone on for over a year. Variances have been granted by agencies, and open discussion has always been on the forefront. The non-compliant action by the defendants has led to court action, he said.
Both Sell, and Schulte said a compromise is on the table. The proposal will go before health department members Wednesday night.
Online court records show future hearings are set for both March 26-27.
Gray water system
Documents indicate that in late 2017, the health board received a complaint through the Salem Township Board of Trustees regarding “the disposal of human waste and improper plumbing in a dwelling on the property.” It included new structures and existing building converted into living quarters, all without approval of the health department, township trustees and the Shelby County Building Department.
In December 2017, health inspectors found failures for not having a proper residential sewage system installed, for having no gray water recycling system, and, improperly installed or altered plumbing due to no permits.
According to the Ohio Department of Health through Administrative Code: Chapter 3701-29, it states, “Gray water discharged to all gray water systems shall only consist of domestic type flows having the consistency and strength typical of gray water from domestic households.
It continues, “The source of gray water may include water from bathing, showering, washing clothes or laundry sinks. Gray water shall not contain water used to wash diapers, or other materials soiled with human excreta or infectious materials, or wastewater that has been in contact with toilet waste, toxic substances, cleaning chemicals other than soap, water softener backwash or any other hazardous household products.”
The administrative code can be found online at www.codes.ohio.gov.
• On Feb. 15, 2018, Joseph Schwartz met with health officials and informed of the violations. Discussion of permits, variances and other remedies was held. No action was taken by the Schwartz family, according to court records.
• In a letter dated April 5, Ambos wrote a letter to the family giving them formal notice to correct the problems. On May 11, Joseph Schwartz requested a variance for the properties.
• On June 20, the health board granted variances regarding the lack of electricity and plumbing but ordered the gray water system tank and privy vault must have concrete pits.
• In a June 22 letter, Registered Sanitarian Michael McClain reviewed the ongoing violations and issued a 90-day order to vacate the buildings or obtain full compliance. The families had 45 days to obtain permits with construction being done during the following 45 days.
• On Aug. 7, claiming the lack of action by the defendants, the health department declared the properties condemned and placed public placards indicating that decision.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.