Judge postpones ruling, but may favor sealed-bid sale of polygamous sect's farm

Polygamy » Large crowd of sect members and their backers rally at the courthouse.
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A Utah judge suggested Wednesday she may offer a polygamous sect's historic farm to the highest bidder -- a sale hundreds of FLDS members gathered outside the Matheson Courthouse Wednesday to oppose.

At the end of a three-hour hearing, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg said a sealed bid process would eliminate any appearance that she is siding with one faction or another. She added, the buyer could decide the best use of Berry Knoll Farm.

"In some ways, that strikes me as the fairest way," Lindberg said.

The judge said she will takes some days to review her options before making a decision on the farm, which is part of the 67-year-old United Effort Plan Trust.

The trust holds virtually all land in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The UEP Trust has been under Lindberg's control since 2005.

Salt Lake City accountant Bruce R. Wisan, who has overseen the trust for the past four years, wants to sell the farm property to solve the trust's "liquidity" crisis. The trust has debts of about $3 million, mostly in fees owed to Wisan's firm and that of his attorneys.

He told Lindberg he is still revising a new purchase offer from Berry Knoll Farm LLC, a holding company created last fall by Kenneth and Joe Knudson, member of a separate polygamous community called Centennial Park.

The deal would sell them 438 acres of the farm for $3 million, with options for more land later, for a housing development. The deal is structured so the trust gets $100,000 payments over a series of months and then $1 million at closing, with the balance paid over a five-year period.

Wednesday's hearing drew about 1,000 FLDS members to Salt Lake City. Some came from as far away as New York, Texas and Canada to signal displeasure with the court's handling of the trust.

"We're opposed to the sale of our church property," said Trevor Barlow of Colorado City, Ariz. "My grandfather and great-grandfather both put land into that trust. I don't think either one of them would be happy with what is going on today."

Because of limited courtroom seating, FLDS members congregated in the hallway outside Lindberg's court, ringed railings on each floor of the building's rotunda, filled stairs and sidewalks outside the courthouse and the lawns of the historic City Hall Building across the street.

There, attorneys representing the sect filled the crowd in on the court proceedings afterward. Attorney Rod Parker praised them for the turnout, saying it was "great to see so many show up to help us protect what's rightfully yours."

He told them Lindberg's proposal to put the property up for bid was "terrible idea" and that settlement was still an option, echoing what he had told the judge.

"If you sell it, then we can't settle it, and it's war forever," Parker said during the hearing.

Lindberg kept the hearing on a tight track, limiting each of 22 witnesses, including attorneys, to 5 minutes and cutting many off mid-sentence when they exceeded their time.

Tim Bodily, an assistant Utah Attorney General, told the judge he believes a settlement is a possibility if all parties "step back" and adjust their demands. No one, he noted, has proposed an alternative to selling Berry Knoll Farm to fund the trust.

While the sale has focused on the land itself, its the water that runs underneath it that may be the real attraction, several witnesses told the judge.

Jerry Barlow, Hildale City business manager, and David Darger, Colorado City town manager, told the judge the twin towns have a critical water situation that would likely be exacerbated by the sale.

Darger said the buyers' interest in Berry Knoll is likely motivated by the aquifer under it, which could be tapped to solve Centennial Park's problems with tainted water sources.

But Zachary Renstrom, an engineer hired by Wisan to study the area's water problems, said converting the water from irrigation to culinary use would significantly lessen the drain on the aquifer.

The judge also heard emotional testimony from FLDS and non-FLDS alike. FLDS members described years of effort to buy and develop Berry Knoll, considered a future temple site, and other properties consecrated to the trust in a religious exercise known as the "holy united effort."

"The Berry Knoll is part of the UEP and for us, the UEP is part and parcel of our religion," said Memory Oler of British Columbia.

Dan Barlow, former mayor of Colorado City, said it would be "totally wrong" to sell Berry Knoll or other properties given to the FLDS church for its support.

Former FLDS members urged the judge to prevent mistreatment of and protect rights of those who no longer adhere to the faith, using the trust to benefit them, too.

"We were in a position to loot that trust from end to end," said Richard Ream, one of six teenagers whose lawsuit alleging mistreatment by the sect triggered the trust takeover.

Instead, Ream said, the plaintiffs sought to have the trust administered for the benefit of all, without regard to their religious standing.

Jethro Barlow, a former FLDS member who now assists Wisan, said an advisory board recommended the Berry Knoll sale after reviewing other options.

"The sale of this property was arrived at because this one had a ready, able and willing buyer," he said, adding that it also opens housing options in the area.

The trust saga is drawing support from other fundamentalist Mormons and groups, who joined Wednesday's public rally.

Heidi Foster, a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, said Lindberg's comments about polygamy and property rights were troubling.

"People should have a right to have a religious trust," she said. "Any time someone says polygamists don't have the right to have property that should be a concern. We should have the same fundamental rights everyone else has."