PHILADELPHIA -- For centuries, hundreds of Amish and Mennonite farmers in Manheim Township, one of Lancaster County's prime agricultural heartlands, have tilled the soil, tended to livestock, and carted goods across rural roads by horse and buggy.
Home for them is lush green farmland, uninterrupted for acres and acres save for silos, grazing animals, and narrow roads.
Now comes a plan for a sprawling development, complete with a hotel, restaurant, banquet hall, supermarket, convenience store, and 550 homes slated to rise on 75 acres not far from the fields the farmers have tended for generations.
Oregon Village, as the development would be called, would dramatically reshape this rural corner of Lancaster County, bringing new housing and fresh commerce and creating a modern complex that supporters say would revitalize the town. It would create jobs, bring in $3 million in annual tax revenue, and reimagine the site of a former hotel, closed decades ago and razed in 2008.
"We believe that this plan will save the village as we know it today," said Victor Hurst, a partner in the project whose family owns the land on which the development would be built. The Hurst family runs Oregon Dairy market, restaurant, and bakery, businesses that would expand with the new development.
At a recent town meeting, Hurst said he envisioned a place "where young people can enjoy their first taste of living independently from their parents, young families can raise their children, the middle-aged enjoy the vibrancy of life, and older folks realize a place where they can age gracefully."
Critics say the sprawling development would upend the locals' deeply-rooted lifestyle and signal the start of a construction boom in an area long known for its agriculture. The project, they say, would fundamentally change the character of a farming village that dates to the 17th century.
"This is like plopping a small city in the middle of farmland," said Mary Haverstick, cofounder of the local citizens' group Respect Farmland. "That's the problem with this design."
The group said the development would increase housing in the small Manheim Township village of Oregon by more than tenfold, from about 50 houses to more than 550, a move it says would "forever alter" the rural enclave. And it predicted "massive traffic congestion," which it said would pose particular hazard for the Amish and Old Order Mennonite who travel by horse and buggy to and from nearby farms.
The land on which Hurst plans to build Oregon Village is zoned for commercial and residential use and set in an area county planners envisioned for growth, but the project needs a conditional-use variance to allow mixed-use development. The developer also needs the township's permission to widen State Route 272, also known as Oregon Pike, from two lanes to six lanes, building to its widest point at two eight-lane intersections.
Supporters of the project say that would redirect traffic away from smaller roads in the village. Detractors say traffic would be a nightmare -- and pose peril for those traveling by horse and buggy.
"I just can't imagine being in a horse and buggy on a six-lane highway," said Amish farmer Amos Beiler as he stood in a field in Manheim on a recent sunny morning. "I just don't know how it's going to work."
The township's five-member board of commissioners has heard ardent testimony from both sides as it weighs one of the most contentious issues to come before the board in years. To be sure, the decision that lies ahead will be critical to the future of the town.
Amish and Mennonite farmers whose properties date back generations and directly abut the Hursts' land strongly oppose the development and say it would disrupt their way of life.
"I feel very much disrespected," said Old Order Mennonite farmer Lester Oberholtzer as he drove his horse and buggy along local roads on a recent day. "The Hurst family knows that this is going to make it more difficult to farm, and I just feel like they have no respect for their neighbors by doing something like this."