The religous group takes rare step into politics to try to change Ohio zoning laws.

MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio (AP) – The Amish, whose religion dictates that they keep their distance from outsiders and modern conveniences, didn’t want to get political.

But they say a township’s restrictions on the size of home-based businesses prevent them from opening woodworking shops at a time when small farming is no longer profitable enough.

Such shops allow them to continue to work alongside their children – one of the tenets of the Amish lifestyle. And now they’re campaigning to eliminate the zoning laws on Nov. 8.

“There’s never been a campaign like this before amongst our people,” said Nathaniel Byler, one of three Amish men who circulated a petition to put the zoning issue on the ballot.

Geauga County has an estimated 12,000 Amish, the fourth-largest settlement in the world, and horse-drawn buggies are as common a sight on Huntsburg Township roads as Fords or Chevrolets. Amish children walk the roads, worn rough from horseshoes, waving with a shy smile at passing cars.

Two years ago, Byler’s son applied to build a cabinetmaking shop larger than the 1,000 square feet allowed under the township’s zoning code.

He was denied by the zoning inspector, then the board of zoning appeals. He tried to point out that none of his neighbors objected to the 4,000-square-foot shop he planned.

The township’s trustees told him to file a “friendly lawsuit” against them so it could be resolved in court.

“That’s not the Amish way of life,” Byler said. “There’s three words that I don’t like: court, suing, judge. It’s not scriptural to sue someone.”

However, the Amish agreed to try the court system. It took two years for Byler’s son to get his permit to build.

Township trustee Clark Adams said he’s always been supportive of the Amish, and understands their need to open shops. But he says the trustees have been advised by the county prosecutor that the best way for them to handle such zoning requests is through the courts.

“We feel we’ve found a solution, but they don’t want to abide by it,” he said.

At the same time the lawsuit was filed, the Amish formed a committee with the trustees to work out an alternative solution.

“They led us on to believe that they’ll work with us,” Byler said. “It never happened.”

He and other Amish men say economic forces no longer make small farming profitable and they need more than 1,000 square feet for their shops.

“We did not want to do this but we have to look out for our family,” Byler said.

The Amish estimate they have about 500 registered voters in the township of 3,500 residents and are asking the non-Amish to support their ballot issue. They also plan to hire four or five taxis to take them to the polls on Election Day – the Amish are permitted to ride in cars, but are not allowed to drive or own them.

There is nothing in the Amish religion that prohibits putting an issue on the ballot, said Donald Kraybill, a sociologist and Amish expert at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

But Kraybill said he’s never heard of it happening before.

Less than 10 percent of the Amish voted in the last presidential election and they tend to vote more often on local issues such as school levies, he said.

“In many communities, as their numbers have grown, they have experienced more political activism, more political power,” Kraybill said.

Adams, who has been a trustee for 40 years, said he’s surprised the Amish took the matter to the voters.

He said he’s come up with an alternative that would allow property owners to build bigger shops depending on their acreage. But he said it will be a moot point if the issue passes.

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