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Why polygamists are leaving their historic hometowns along the Utah-Arizona border

Published May 24, 2017 7:36 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Recent news stories revealed that members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are leaving their traditional homes in twin towns along the Utah-Arizona line.

Why are they moving out? Where are they going? Will they return?

Here are answers to those questions and more:



• Why are the FLDS members moving? They are being evicted from homes in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek. Those houses are owned by a land trust once controlled by the FLDS.

• How many have left? No one knows. FLDS leadership isn't talking, and even the rank-and-file members say they don't know the figure or how many people even belong to their church anymore. Most assume the recent departures number in the hundreds and will reach four digits when the evictions wrap up.

• Why are they being evicted? The FLDS members have largely refused to sign occupancy agreements — sort of a cross between a rental contract and the terms of a homeowners association — or pay the $100-a-month-per-home fee to the trust. Occupants have been required to pay the property taxes, and homes have chronically been behind on those taxes.

• Why won't the members work with the trust? First, that trust, called the United Effort Plan (UEP), was incorporated in 1942 as a separate legal entity from what became the FLDS. The original beneficiaries consecrated their properties and assets to the UEP so they could live communally. The FLDS believe the UEP assets belong to God.

The trust was seized by Utah in 2005 over concerns FLDS President Warren Jeffs was mismanaging it. The UEP is overseen by a judge in Salt Lake City. The FLDS followers consider that seizure to be government persecution and theft.

The judge also has appointed a board of trustees to manage the trust. That panel has hired staff, and most of the trustees and staff are former FLDS. The remaining members consider them apostates. These apostates are seen to be worse than people who never followed the church, and so the members are unwilling to work with them or the UEP.

The evictions were sporadic for the first 11 years the court had control of the trust, but last year, the judge gave more authority to the trustees and they have opted to assert more control over the properties. As a result, evictions have accelerated.

• Why did the judge appoint former FLDS members as trustees? They applied. Both judges who have overseen the case have wanted trustees who are locals and familiar with the trust. While the court hasn't disclosed everyone who has applied to be a trustee, nor has the UEP disclosed everyone who has applied for a staff position, there's no indication FLDS members have applied for either.

• Don't FLDS members have a religious-freedom argument? They may, but the church waited three years to make its case in Utah courts. The Utah Supreme Court said that was too long. The FLDS then sued in federal court in Salt Lake City. In 2011, Judge Dee Benson ruled in favor of the church, and FLDS members are quick to note that when discussing the UEP. The following year, however, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Benson's ruling, again saying the FLDS waited too long.

• So no court challenges are possible? FLDS members still could contest individual evictions if they want to argue that the UEP has not followed Utah's or Arizona's processes for evictions. But the takeover of the trust is settled.

• Where are the FLDS members going? Lots of places. Some have found homes in the surrounding communities on both sides of the state line. Some are settling in Utah communities such as Kanarraville, Cedar City, Beaver and Huntington. Others have left Utah and Arizona altogether and gone to places like Oklahoma and Colorado.

• How can they afford rent or mortgages? The same way everyone else affords housing. FLDS members own businesses or hold jobs.

• Who is moving into the vacant UEP homes? The vast majority of the new occupants are others who have ties to the community and had moved away, specifically people who no longer or never did follow Jeffs but who made contributions to the UEP sometime since its 1942 founding. In a few cases, the trust has sold homes or commercial property to charities or businesses that want to provide resources or commerce to the community.

• Who qualifies to receive a home? The trustees, with final approval from the judge, can give a home to anyone they want, though they are supposed to follow guidelines providing for the best needs of those who contributed to the trust. The trustees ask for evidence that an applicant donated assets or labors that benefited the UEP. Those labors might have included working on homes as part of church projects or cooking or caring for children during those projects.

In cases in which the applicant built the home with his or her own money — then consecrated it to the trust — the UEP has sold the home to the applicant for just a few thousand dollars to cover surveying and closing costs. Other homes have been sold at discounts, depending on the contributions the applicant made to the UEP.

• What is the UEP's long-term goal? To dissolve itself. That may take a few years, a decade or longer depending on how quickly people apply for property and how quickly the sales can occur.

Most UEP homes have been sold in Hildale, but there's a hang-up in Colorado City. That town's government has been unwilling to approve a subdivision plan. Most blocks are listed as one parcel at county offices, even though there may be 16 homes sitting on a block. The UEP cannot sell individual houses in Colorado City unless those parcels are subdivided. A federal judge, however, has ordered Colorado City to work with the UEP to develop a subdivision plan.

• Is this the end of the FLDS in Short Creek? No. People may be leaving residences, but FLDS-affiliated businesses have been buying industrial park property from Hildale's municipal government. There are a few privately owned residences in and around Short Creek where FLDS members can live, too.

Of course, FLDS members believe this current exodus is temporary, that Jeffs will be freed from his Texas prison — where he is serving a sentence of up to life plus 20 years after being convicted of sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives — and that their freed prophet will then return the homes to his people.

One way or another, there probably will always be some FLDS presence in Short Creek.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

 

 

 

 

 

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