Dismantling polygamous sect’s property grip: FLDS trust management sells Hildale home

The sale of a single home marks a historic event in a court-sanctioned drive to dismantle a communal enterprise launched 65 years ago to safeguard the practice of polygamy.

The United Effort Plan Trust sold the six-bedroom, four-bath home on Utah Avenue in Hildale for $115,000 in September to Crystal and Roger Wyler. Roger Wyler grew up in the town but left about six years ago after breaking with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“In real America, homes are sold,” said Bruce R. Wisan, who oversees the trust once run by the sect.

Wisan plans more sales as he privatizes the trust, which holds virtually all property in the border towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz. About 6,000 people live in the twin towns, most of whom are faithful FLDS members.

But Wisan’s efforts to privatize this polygamous community represent a radical departure from the past and are proceeding at a painstakingly slow – and expensive – rate.

It is unclear to what extent the faithful FLDS, who continue to have as little to do as possible with Wisan, will participate in his efforts to privatize the trust. They have shown no interest in participating in the homeownership schemes.

Wisan has overseen the trust since 2005, when a Utah court seized it after the sect failed to defend it in two civil lawsuits.

The trust, set up in 1942, was modeled after the early Mormon concept of a “United Order,” in which members contributed time, labor and money to establish the community. They built or lived in homes as “tenants at-will” on trust land.

As such, their continued occupancy on trust land depended on faithfulness and was subject to approval of sect leaders. Homes were typically assigned by the FLDS bishop. And occupants understood they did not own the properties or have claim to any improvements made.

Now, Wisan and his advisory board – all but one of whom are apostates from the faith – are making those occupancy decisions, with the primary aim of turning residents into homeowners and breaking up the trust.

So far, Wisan has set up four ways to transfer property out of the trust: sell abandoned homes; sell vacant lots for $20,000; hand over titles, for $5,000 plus closing costs, to former sect members with proven claims to homes; and set up spendthrift trusts that treat occupants like owners.

The trust has received offers for lots and other abandoned homes and is ready to transfer titles on 42 homes, Wisan said.

But that can’t happen until the towns approve subdivision plats, which has proven problematic.

A property survey, necessary to create legal lot descriptions, is complete and a total of 36 property plats are awaiting approval in the two towns.

Wisan characterizes that approval process as “difficult, slow and expensive.”

In Colorado City, officials are requiring plats to be reviewed by 22 departments before the town council can give them final approval, Wisan said. The review fee per plat: $5,000. In Hildale, eight departments must check off on the plats.

A subdivision ordinance adopted this summer by the Colorado City Town Council – the first in the town – is “unreasonable and overly burdensome,” Wisan said. He claims it will impair the trust’s ability to subdivide its property and allow new construction. He has threatened to sue over its provisions, which could drag out the process for two or three years.

“We’re going to try to work things out,” Wisan said. “I sometimes am skeptical, but certainly want to give the thing a try.”

Meantime, the town council has given preliminary approval to the first plat in the “Short Creek Subdivision.”

After an initial dispute, the town has agreed to overlook some subdivision requirements.

And Wisan has agreed that as the property “developer” the trust will make certain improvements required by the town, such as extension of water lines, installation of more fire hydrants and mapping underground utilities.

The trust will “front” the expenses but plans to assess residents for them, Wisan said – a point he made Friday night in a sparsely attended town hall meeting in Hildale.

He estimates those costs at $1 million plus.

Residents will likely face more expenses, too. The trust is having to pay about $70,000 in 2006 taxes on vacant land in Colorado City and a smaller sum in Hildale.

More critical, the towns’ culinary water system is inadequate to handle any growth and has trouble now meeting demand.

“We’re pretty much persuaded it’s a legitimate issue,” said Jeff Shields, Wisan’s attorney.

The trust is currently investigating the possibility of purchasing additional water rights that would allow it to draw from a substantial well in Hildale.

“The trust needs a lot of money to attack the water problem for the community,” Wisan said, adding it is the “one thing” he’d like to solve before ending his stint as the trust’s manager. He’ll get that money by selling off trust holdings.

Meanwhile, the Wylers and their two children are settling into their new home and others remain interested in moving into the area.

Sam LeBeau and his wife, who live in Charlottesville, Va., visited Zion National Park a year ago and took a detour to the community after reading about the polygamous sect. They walked around Cottonwood Park, stopped to eat at Big Dan’s and picked up snacks at the CMC Food Town grocery store.

“It is a wonderful location with all of the beautiful scenery, national parks and golf courses,” LeBeau wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune on Friday. “My wife and I would consider purchasing a second home in that area if we found something suitable.

“Are you aware of any properties in the Colorado City area that are becoming available for the public to purchase?” he asked. “Would someone who is not a member of their organization have a hard time living there?”

Not according to Crystal Wyler.

Despite the religious divide that exists between the FLDS faithful and ex-sect members, “everybody’s been nice to me. I haven’t had any problems living here.

“One of the reasons we decided to move down here is we liked the school system,” said Crystal Wyler, who grew up in Vernal and met Roger after he moved there. “And Roger remembered he had a good childhood here. We’re just hoping that is what we’re going to be giving our children.”

Sidebar:

The latest financial report by special fiduciary Bruce R. Wisan pushes expenses and costs of managing a polygamous sect’s property trust over the $3 million mark.

Wisan, appointed to oversee the United Effort Plan Trust in 2005, reported fees and other expenses of $553,261 between June 1 and Sept. 12.

The big-ticket expenses included tax payments, professional fees and survey costs.

The legal firm of Callister Nebeker & McCullough, which represents the United Effort Plan Trust, was paid $195,377 for services earlier in the year. Wisan’s firm received $52,244.

Wisan also paid $100,000 to Baltimore attorney Joanne Suder, who helped craft two civil lawsuits that led to seizure of the trust from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Suder’s fee was included in an agreement settling the two lawsuits.

The trust currently has a cash balance of about $124,000, Wisan said. He has covered expenses to date by recovering and selling properties, such as the Western Precision building in Hildale.

Wisan also plans to sell the Harker Farm in Beryl, which he claimed to satisfy an $8.8 million judgment against the trust’s former managers. Right now, the trust is reaping revenue from milk sales at the dairy farm.

Source:
Salt Lake Tribune, USA
Oct. 22, 2007
Brooke Adams
www.sltrib.com

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