N.Y. cracks down on Amish windows that are too small

Old Order tradition says size of openings must be 5 square feet

November 27, 2003|By Lisa W. Foderaro | Lisa W. Foderaro,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. - In the unyielding world of the Old Order Amish, very little changes, not the horse and buggy they ride in, not the capes and bonnets they wear.

The Amish home, too, remains a bulwark of simplicity and modesty. Religious tradition in this community in western New York, conservative even by Amish standards, dictates everything from the plumbing (gravity fed, cold water only) to the oil lamps used in place of electricity (kerosene) to the size of window openings (5 square feet).

It is those windows that have suddenly thrust the 50 Amish families here into an uncomfortable spotlight, placing them - and town officials - at loggerheads with the state. The problem is a new state code that requires a minimum opening for bedroom windows, meant to ease both the escape of residents during a fire and access by rescuers.

Under the code, which went into effect in January, bedroom windows in newly built houses must measure at least 5.7 square feet. The double-hung, rectangular Amish window, which met the previous code requirement of 4 square feet, falls short of the new standard, town officials say.

`You can't do that'

This summer, John H. Rasmussen, Chautauqua's code enforcement officer, went to the home of Amos Byler, one of the three Amish residents seeking permits to build new houses, and measured an existing window. Rasmussen said that he did not record the exact dimensions but that he remembered that the window was roughly 5 square feet and just shy of what the state now requires by an inch and a half on each side. "I said, `Amos, you can't do that,'" he recalled. He denied the permits for all three houses.

To the outsider, the solution is obvious: enlarge the windows by a smidgen. "It sounds easy to someone who isn't Amish, but if you're Old Order Amish it's not easy," said Mose Byler, the bishop of one of the two Amish districts in Chautauqua, clad in the traditional male uniform of a navy denim jacket fastened by hooks and eyes. "If you break a tradition, where's the tradition? You're not a faithful member."

The Amish are heartened that the town board is backing them. The board voted unanimously this summer to issue permits for the three houses, illegal windows and all, overruling Rasmussen. The town supervisor, James R. Willcockson, signed the permits himself in August and September, and the houses are now up and occupied.

Willcockson said he had spoken with local firefighters who said the difference in size, a fraction of a square foot, would not hinder rescue efforts. Given the rural location of the Amish houses and the lack of phones with which to dial 911, "there is not going to be much left standing" anyway, Willcockson added.

"It gets to the point where sometimes you have to do what you think is morally right," Willcockson explained. "We had a lot of support from people in the community. The Amish are a real benefit. They pay their taxes for everything although they don't use a lot of the services. They don't complain. They're just a great bunch of people to have around."

The state sees things differently. In a sternly worded letter to Willcockson dated Aug. 25, the codes division of the Department of State said the town was "in violation of the state laws and regulations that were enacted for the purpose of protecting the public" from fire and inadequate construction. While highlighting the improper window opening, the state also took issue with the building plans, noting that they lacked the signature of an architect or an engineer.

The letter, which came before construction began, said the town should stop the work on the houses immediately and threatened to begin an audit of the town's code enforcement. The letter noted that the state was working on a change in the new code that would permit houses to be built without plumbing and electricity, subject to local approval, a change that would "favor the Amish tradition." (The old code allowed such exemptions, but the new code does not.)

But there appears to be little wiggle room on window size. The letter concluded by saying that there was "no plan to change such life-safety features as the size of emergency egress and rescue openings," adding that the issue had been studied and adopted internationally. The Amish could still apply for a variance for a smaller window opening to a regional state review board in Buffalo, as the letter advised. But Willcockson said that his talks with a middlevel state official this summer left him with the impression that the state would not be inclined to give such a variance.

Town officials did not respond to the state's letter, and the state recently sent another warning letter reiterating the first, according to Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the Department of State.

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