Set up nearly 70 years ago to help the religious practice of plural marriage flourish, a communal property trust in southern Utah is days away from being set on a new, secular course.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg is poised to sign off on a reformation aimed at privatizing the land now held by the United Effort Plan Trust, a move described in court Tuesday as a “watershed” event.
Lindberg praised the “forward progress” being made and said she would approve the document once minor corrections are made, opening the way for trust beneficiaries to claim property for themselves.
A 90-day window will be set up to accept an initial round of petitions shortly after Lindberg signs the document.
The United Effort Plan Trust was first set up in 1937 by a group known as the Priesthood Work in what are now the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., according to historian Ben Bistline, author of The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Ariz.
It was to be an “umbrella under which polygamy could be lived,” shielding people from government intervention while helping provide for their basic needs, Bistline wrote.
The community eventually incorporated as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the beleaguered polygamous sect led by Warren S. Jeffs.
Jeffs is currently in jail, awaiting trial on two first-degree felony charges of being an accomplice to rape for his role conducting a spiritual marriage between a minor and older man. The woman, identified as “Jane Doe,” objected to the marriage and alleges she was forced to engage in sexual intercourse.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office asked the court to take over the trust in 2005 after the FLDS failed to defend several lawsuits, including one filed by the unidentified woman, that targeted its assets.
Managing the property trust has proved to be an expensive undertaking: $1.2 million to date.
The latest billing submitted by Bruce R. Wisan, the court-appointed fiduciary who has run the trust since May 2005, totaled $311,973. The sum includes his expenses and those of attorneys in Utah, Arizona and British Columbia who’ve worked on the case.
The trust holds virtually all property in the twin towns, land valued at $107.5 million. It also owns about $4 million worth of property in British Columbia.
In the past, faithful followers sought permission from FLDS church-appointed trustees to build homes on the land, which had been donated to the trust.
Because they did not hold property deeds, residents were unable to seek mortgages and most homes were built piecemeal as finances allowed. Those who fell away from or were kicked out of the faith typically were forced to give up their homes.
Those constraints disappear with the proposed reformation.
The new trust sets up two avenues for residents to gain control of their properties: seek deeds outright or pursue a spendthrift trust, which allows use of the property with some oversight from new trustees.
Wisan, the court-appointed fiduciary who has overseen the trust since May 2005, told Lindberg that he expects only ex-FLDS members will seek property deeds or spendthrift trusts.
He said faithful FLDS won’t participate because of a new edict from Jeffs barring them from claiming property consecrated to God.
Bistline said leaders have taught since the religious community’s founding that followers should never seek deeds to land consecrated to the Priesthood Work and thus the trust.
“I can’t believe [Wisan] thought he could come down here and convince the followers of Warren Jeffs to accept deeds to their homes,” Bistline said.
Wisan said in court that if FLDS members participate in the new trust options, something equivalent to a homeowners’ association will be necessary to manage their properties.
Only a fraction of residents in the twin towns, which have a population of about 6,000, are ex-FLDS members or people who never participated in the faith.
Wisan also told Lindberg that a survey firm has finished drawing up new plat maps that subdivide block parcels into individual lots, which will aid in property tax assessments and signing over deeds. He said the firm will present those maps to the Hildale City Council next week for approval, but is getting a less receptive response from the Colorado City Town Council.
The judge also heard some details of a proposed settlement to two lawsuits filed against the trust. One was filed by six teens who allege they were driven out of the community and the other by a young man who alleges Jeffs, his uncle, sexually abused him years ago.
Roger Hoole, a Salt Lake attorney representing the plaintiffs, has proposed creation of a fund that would provide temporary assistance – such as money for food, shelter and educational supplies – to children or adults who’ve been kicked out of the faith or choose to leave it.
Hoole said after the hearing the fund would be aimed at providing a faster response to those who need help and would be governed by a separate advisory board.
The settlement also calls for the plaintiffs to receive 3 acres each of undeveloped land, Hoole said.