Amish who refuse to use sewer lose appeal

Fines levied against a Sugar Grove couple for violations of a sewage permit ordinance have been upheld by a state appeals court.

A panel of Commonwealth Court judges upheld the separate convictions of Joseph and Barbara Yoder for failing to connect a property, known as the Hardwood Mill Trust and the Yoder Family Trust, at 738 Catlin Rd. to the municipal sewer system as required.

On Jan. 5, 2012, Judge Gregory Hammond sentenced the Yoders each to pay a fine of $300 and costs of prosecution for the violations.

The original private criminal complaint in the matter was filed by the Sugar Grove Area Sewer Authority.

The Yoders filed an appeal to the sentence based on questions over conduct and decisions of the Common Pleas court during court proceedings.

Specifically, the appeal questioned whether the court should have dismissed the Sugar Grove authority’s case, whether Hammond conducted himself appropriately at the hearing of the case and whether the court should have provided an interpreter to the Yoders, whose native tongue is Pennsylvania Dutch.

The appeals court ruled the Yoders failed to, “Concisely identify each ruling or error that the appellant intends to challenge with sufficient detail to identify all pertinent issues,” according to an opinion on the matter authored by Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman.

In their appeal documents, the Yoders stated, “The trial court erred by not dismissing case,” and, “(the trial judge) conducted himself improperly,” without citing specific errors or conduct, according to the opinion.

As to the issue of an interpreter, the opinion noted the Pennsylvania Judicial Code, “provides that an interpreter shall be appointed, ‘if the presiding judicial officer (in this case Hammond) determines that a principal party… has a limited ability to speak or understand English’.” As a result, the appeals court found the decision whether to appoint an interpreter, “within the trial judge’s sound discretion.”

The Yoders claimed they required an interpreter as their native language is Pennsylvania Dutch, but Hammond ruled documents filed by the Yoders pursuant to the issue, “demonstrated an ample understanding of the English language.” Hammond also monitored the Yoders’ understanding of trial proceedings and determined, “they both understood the questions asked of them and responded appropriately.”

The fines are just the latest development in a long-running dispute between the Yoders and the Sugar Grove authority concerning the Hardwood Trust property.

In August 2006, the authority notified the Yoders that the property was situated within 150 feet of the public sewer system and therefore must be connected to it by statute.

Connecting to the system would have required making provisions to provide electricity for a grinder pump at the property, which does not currently have electrical service.

In April 2008, the authority and the Yoders negotiated an alternate agreement for the handling of sewage at the property. The agreement allowed the Yoders to pump and transport sewage to the authority’s pumping station on Route 957 in lieu of connecting to the system.

In September 2010, Frantz and Russell Sanitary Service transported sewage from the Yoder property to a waste treatment center in Jamestown, N.Y., rather than to the authority pumping station.

In October 2010, the Yoders were served notice to correct the violation within 30 days or be required to connect to the sewer system. Failure to connect to the system within 30 days would result in the Yoders being in violation of the municipal sewer ordinance.

At the time of the notice, the Yoders had not made payments for waste deposit as required by the 2008 agreement since August 2010.

No action was taken to connect to the system.

In January 2010, the authority sent the Yoders a notice of obligation to connect to the sewer system and filed court documents seeking an injunction to allow the authority to connect the property to the sewer system and install electrical service needed for the grinder pump at the Yoders’ expense. The same court filing requested an injunction to remove the Yoders and their family from the property until actions to bring the property out of violation with the sewer ordinance could be completed.

The filing noted the Yoders refused to run electricity at the property, or to allow service on the right-of-way or the installation of a generator as alternate means of powering the grinder pump.

All court filings and responses for the Yoders were filed and signed by Joseph Yoder. No attorney was listed for the Yoders on any court documents.

Yoder’s filings were in English and demonstrated and repeatedly utilized legal terminology, demonstrating an understanding of the terms used.

For example, in one filing, Yoder stated, “…I hereby rescind my signature on said contract and declare said contract to be void ab initio for mistakes…”

Ab initio is a Latin term meaning “from the beginning” used in legal terminology to denote something has been the case from the start.

Joseph Yoder signed and was the only name on the filing.