After several contentious meetings with residents, the formation of a committee of concerned citizens urging the supervisors to rescind the so-called Equestrian Ordinance, more than two years of angry township meetings and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s threat to sue Newlin Township, a revised ordinance has emerged. An olive branch it is not.
The infamous Equestrian Ordinance was passed in October 2014. The ordinance made distinctions between commercial and private equine facilities. Those facilities deemed to be commercial became subject to restrictions governing how many horses they could have on the properties. The ordinance required a commercial operation—that is a facility which charges board for horses or offers lessons—to have three acres for the first horse and two acres for each additional horse on the property. Additionally, the ordinance placed restrictions on the size and location of indoor arenas, limited outdoor equine activities to daylight hours and mandated off-street parking.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Susan Bucknum informed the supervisors of the rural Chester County township that the ordinance violated several provisions of Pennsylvania’s Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment Act (ACRE), passed in 2005. She pointed out that the Township cannot regulate the number of horses a farm owner can have on their property, nor could the Township require special exceptions for commercial equine operations. Additionally, the ordinance mandated setbacks for pasture areas that fall within the Township’s Floodplain Conservation Overlay District. Bucknum noted that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) already regulates erosion and sediment control on agricultural operations, and she suggested that the Township instead require horse farms to provide proof of written manure management plans, which are mandated by ACRE.
Commercial Equine Activity Redefined
The revised ordinance redefines Commercial Equine Activity to include any activities involving horses or other equines “done in exchange for money and/or services,” such as: boarding, lessons in riding or driving, including clinics, training of equines, and equestrian events. And it regulates events defined as “Equestrian Events” and “Special Equestrian Events.” An Equestrian event is one that “includes equestrian related activities such as, but not limited to, private parties organized for groups where lessons in riding or driving equines are provided; judged competitions and schooling shows; sale of materials related to equines; polo games or tournaments.”
A Special Equestrian Event is defined as “an event that includes equestrian related activities lasting for a duration of two days or less and which is open to the general public either by advertisement or invitation. Special equestrian events shall include, but are not limited to, pony clubs, fox hunts, and other similar activities.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has established that horses are considered agricultural, and that horse farms are thus agricultural operations. ACRE was specifically created in order to protect agricultural operations from unauthorized local ordinances—ordinances that would impede a farmer’s ability to conduct routine farm-related activities.
Horse farms routinely train horses, many routinely host clinics and shows. And fox hunting has been part of the fabric of life in Chester County for hundreds of years. The distinctions between Special Equestrian Events and Equestrian Events seem irrelevant, except that they regulate how and when these events can take place.
The Township’s revised ordinance states that special use permits would be required for Special Equestrian Events, and Equestrian Events could be subject to additional restrictions, presumably through the Township’s Zoning Hearing Board. The ordinance appears to require farms to apply to the Zoning Hearing Board for approval prior to staging an event.
The revised ordinance includes regulations about manure management; however the State already regulates this and has specific guidelines for agricultural operations. The Township seems to have gone to great lengths to specify as new what has been settled law in Pennsylvania since 2005.
But besides the redundant manure management regulations, the Township has included restrictions on the size, height and location of riding arenas. Again, since the Supreme Court has already established that horse farms are agricultural operations, and since it has ruled against other townships’ attempts to limit or restrict buildings on horse farms, it seems this part of the revised ordinance violates Pennsylvania’s ACRE law.
What Does This Accomplish?
Supervisor Chair Janie Baird said that she had no comment on the revised ordinance, but Township residents had plenty to say. In a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, Laura Shannon asked the supervisors what they were trying to accomplish with the equestrian ordinance. She is still baffled by the Township’s attempts to fix something that she believes is not broken. “One could ask why Newlin Township needs a horse specific ordinance altogether,” she wrote in an email to the Attorney General. “The Township has every right and responsibility to protect property owners from certain nuisances. Perhaps they should go back to the drawing board, define those ‘nuisances’ that the existing ordinance does not address sufficiently and revise the Ordinance accordingly and equitably without discriminating against horse farms.”
She says that the Township Supervisors seem to be oblivious to the way horse farms operate. “Township Supervisors have demonstrated an incomprehensible lack of understanding or interest in what it is that horse farmers need in order to exist and prosper. They have, in fact, pursued a course that appears to be the direct opposite of what they claim to be concerned with. They have been asked repeatedly what problems they are trying to prevent or deal with relative to horse farms and they have NOT ONCE given a coherent answer.”
Others have noted that the Supervisors have stated that they’re trying to protect the land, but there are other large animal operations in the Township that the Supervisors have ignored, such as cattle farms.
Shannon and other members of the Concerned Citizens of Newlin Township are angry that the original ordinance took effect and several farm owners had to pay $1500 to obtain special exceptions so they could continue to operate. And, they say, the Township is wasting money on outside attorneys that have been hired to defend and rewrite an unnecessary ordinance.
A Small Township, Big Conflicts
There are about 1,300 residents of Newlin Township, according to the 2010 census. The Township occupies just 12 square miles. But the conflict between horse farms and the Township Supervisors seems far larger. The farms targeted by the ordinance are asking why they are being regulated when dairy farms are not. They are asking how the original ordinance and the revised ordinance solve what was originally a complaint about traffic. They are asking how this ordinance achieves the Township’s goal of protecting open space. A collision between the ordinance and Pennsylvania’s established agricultural laws seems inevitable, and it could be expensive.