HILDALE – Fiduciary Bruce Wisan opened a United Effort Plan Trust meeting in Hildale Saturday evening, the second UEP meeting to take place that day, by alluding briefly to the misdemeanor prostitution patronage charge he is currently facing in Taylorsville, which he said could potentially lead to his removal or resignation as overseer of the polygamous trust. But when it came time for a question-and-answer session later in the meeting, nobody was asking Wisan about the prostitution scandal – attendees had other things on their minds.
“Why are we having to pay for something that’s already ours in the first place?” a man seated in the El Capitan High School auditorium asked Wisan Saturday night.
The man’s question summed up one area of concern that residents of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, have had as the very complex matter of property ownership and occupancy has unfolded in the two border communities. As occupancy fees have been assessed for those living on UEP lands – and evictions carried out for nonpayers – many residents have become concerned and confused about what will now happen to them and their properties – and how much it’s going to cost for them to remain in their homes.
This was one of the primary reasons for the two meetings that took place Saturday – the first at Mohave Community College in Colorado City and the second at El Capitan in Hildale.
“The purpose of the meeting was to explain issues, answer questions and establish some credibility,” Jeffrey Shields, legal counsel for the UEP Trust, said after the first meeting had concluded.
“The tenor of the meeting was upbeat, productive,” he added.
Shields and Wisan traveled from northern Utah to attend the two meetings and answer the many questions community residents have had since Judge Denise Lindberg ordered the evictions of those who have not been paying their $100 monthly occupancy fees to the UEP Trust, which is a charitable trust reorganized by the 3rd District Court to administer housing solutions and benefits for trust beneficiaries.
Another goal of the meetings was to educate residents about the process of obtaining deeds to their homes, so they can own them free and clear and no longer be part of the UEP Trust or subject to its fees and legal entanglements.
“If you have a house that’s owned by the trust, our goal is to get that property to you and your title so you can mortgage it, sell it, burn it down – whatever you want to do with it, it will be your option,” Shields said.
More than 100 people attended a morning meeting at Mohave Community College in Colorado City, Arizona, with a smaller crowd showing up at the evening meeting in Hildale, but there were no members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at either gathering, former FLDS member Ross Chatwin said.
“They cannot come to these meetings,” Chatwin said, “and if they did, they’d be spied on and kicked out (of the FLDS church).”
UEP notices regarding meetings, fees and how to prevent eviction have been placed around town, mailed out and even posted on the doors of residences, but FLDS members still faithful to Warren Jeffs have been forbidden to read them, Chatwin said.
“They (the church leaders) won’t allow them to know what these options are,” he said.
This information blockade by FLDS religious leaders has already led to eviction notices being served on 16 residences, because FLDS church members are not allowed to cooperate with the UEP Trust and work out plans to pay their court-mandated occupancy fees and remain in their homes. Church members have been ordered to pay their taxes and occupancy fees to the church’s leaders instead, Chatwin said.
Shields said 14 more homes will be served with notices on Monday.
“Right now, the trust is following the court orders, and the court order is: pay the occupancy fees or evict,” Wisan said.
Some residents who have already been evicted from their homes set up tents on the properties of other FLDS members earlier this month and lived in them for a couple of days, Katie Cox, a member of the UEP housing committee and advisory board, said. Those displaced families have since been taken into the homes of other FLDS members; but soon, a true tent city may spring up in Hildale.
Cox said the Hildale city government changed four laws at a recent City Council meeting in order to convert a portion of Hildale’s industrial area into residential property. Evicted FLDS members will soon be able to pitch tents or park trailers at this newly created subdivision and live there.
“So you’ve got the city creating a residence for these FLDS people, and it’s a big mess,” Cox said.
While in Hildale Saturday, Wisan said he drove past the property and saw the area where ground has been leveled in preparation for the tent city.
“I can’t envision hundreds of people living in tents,” he said.
Wisan spoke of his days serving in the military and the harsh conditions that must be dealt with when residing in a tent community. He said he feels sorry for those who are still under the control of Warren Jeffs and are being governed by decisions that have led to their homelessness.
“I would hope that (FLDS) leadership would make some decisions that would not impair the living conditions of the people,” Wisan said.
Chatwin said he believes FLDS members still faithful to Warren Jeffs, including members of his own family, will “wake up” someday and leave the FLDS church, as he and many others have – but by then it will be too late, he said, because their homes will already have been given to someone else.
Chatwin said he’s hopeful that he and other ex-FLDS members will be able to petition and obtain deeds on behalf of their family members so their homes won’t be lost.
“They’re just being obedient to their terrible leaders,” he said.
The first 26 to receive property deeds
After lengthy tussles with the Hildale city leadership that led all the way to the Supreme Court, Wisan and Shields said the UEP Trust has finally been able to subdivide the community and map out properties there, which means deeds can now be given out to petitioners and matters of home ownership can finally be settled for those living in Hildale. In the next few weeks, deeds will be dispersed to 26 people, Shields said. This first phase of property dispersal will involve some of the more clear-cut cases where home ownership is uncontested.
“These are people that had petitioned; these are people that built their houses; these are the people that are living in their houses,” Wisan said.
Other cases will not be so clear-cut and easy to resolve. Concerns were raised by attendees at the morning meeting regarding housing disputes between family members, and one man in the audience expressed concern about a home he originally built but which was later occupied by someone else who built on a large addition. When it comes down to petitioning for a deed, the man said a dispute could arise as to who is truly entitled to ownership of the home – the person who built the original structure or the person who built the addition. Wisan said cases like these will have to be settled by the housing committee and may have to go into litigation before they are resolved.
“That’s what I call a bone with some hair on it,” Wisan said.
“They (the housing committee) are going to have to adjudicate how those situations are handled,” he added.
Wisan said he and the housing committee members only just recently settled on a transfer fee amount, which petitioners will have to pay before they can receive deeds to their homes. The transfer fee plan will be subject to approval by the judge, but the proposed fee has been tentatively set at $6,534 per acre, or 15 cents per square foot, plus closing costs. So Hildale residents who are current on their taxes and occupancy fees can file petitions to receive deeds to their homes; once their petitions are approved, and once they pay the transfer fee and closing costs – or work out a payment schedule with the UEP Trust – home ownership will be theirs, free and clear. Once occupants have received deeds to their homes, they will no longer be subject to occupancy fees imposed by the UEP Trust and their properties will no longer be vulnerable to lawsuits against the trust.
“You have your property. It’s real, live America,” Wisan said.
Properties cannot yet be dispersed on the Colorado City side of the community because of a lack of cooperation from the Colorado City Council, Shields said. Until UEP properties in Colorado City can be subdivided, deeds cannot be given out. It could be years before properties can be distributed to trust beneficiaries on the Arizona side of the border.
“We may have to litigate,” Shields said. “We had to take Hildale to the Utah Supreme Court to get a subdivision approved.”
“We have some discussions going with Colorado City,” he added. “They’re a tough group to deal with.”
Wisan acknowledged that paying occupancy fees and transfer fees will be financially easy for some but very difficult for others. He encouraged those experiencing financial hardships to communicate with the UEP Trust and housing committee members so a payment plan can be worked out and arrangements can be made to either keep people in their current homes or get them situated in vacant homes.
“We’re reasonable,” Wisan said. “Whatever we can work out. Don’t feel that this is a slam-dunk number that has to be paid now.”
“Come to us and let’s see what we can do,” he said.
Wisan reiterated that eviction is not the end goal of these proceedings, but the judge wants the UEP Trust to start receiving as much revenue as possible and has even argued to increase the monthly occupancy fees.
“I have resisted that,” he said. “I’d like to keep it $100 a month.”
“We want to be on the low end of reasonable and fair on these situations,” he added.
The fees taken in by the UEP Trust are used in a variety of ways, Wisan said, including to finance the various and ongoing lawsuits the trust has been involved in. The UEP Trust is currently in the midst of a lawsuit, referred to as the “MJ Case,” that was filed against the trust by former FLDS child bride Elissa Wall. Shields discussed the MJ Case in detail at both meetings, and Wall was in attendance at the evening meeting, though she did not make any comments and left immediately after the meeting concluded.
Money taken in by the trust is also being used to pay consultants, including members of the housing committee who act in an advisory capacity to Wisan. The trust has also had to “pony up” and pay taxes on some properties that were on the verge of being sold at a tax sale, Wisan said.
A new FLDS leader?
Chatwin said he believes Wisan and the UEP Trust are playing right into the hands of Lyle Jeffs, brother of imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, by going forward with these evictions.
Lyle Jeffs wants the FLDS followers to feel like martyrs, Chatwin said, and these eviction proceedings are accomplishing that – further widening the gap between FLDS members and the outside world.
“They’re going to blame it on the wickedness of the state of Utah,” Chatwin said.
With Warren Jeffs in prison, Chatwin said he believes Lyle Jeffs, who is currently in hiding, is now getting a taste for the power of governing the church and may be attempting to take over the FLDS leadership.
“He loves the power, the women,” Chatwin said.
“Lyle is everything that Warren is, but worse,” he added.
Chatwin said he doesn’t want to see the FLDS members evicted from their homes. When all is said and done, he said, the FLDS children will be the ones to suffer. Such action is counterproductive, he added, and serves to further push church members into the clutches of the Jeffs brothers.
“It’s the very thing that Lyle wants to have happen,” Chatwin said.
Future of the UEP Trust
It is not yet known whether Wisan will step down or be removed from his position of overseeing the UEP Trust.
The desire has long been that the state will eventually withdraw from the trust altogether, leaving governance to a local board of trustees, but Wisan said he doesn’t know if that can happen now.
Before an independent board of trustees can take over, directors and officers liability insurance must be acquired, but because of the extensive litigation the trust has been involved in, no insurance broker wants to touch it, Wisan said. A board, once appointed, could not go forward independently without that insurance.
“The judge doesn’t want any board of director to put their own assets at risk,” Wisan said.
The only solution may be for the judge to assume oversight of the board of trustees once board members have been appointed.
“That’s not the end goal, but maybe that’s what will have to happen for two or three years,” Wisan said.
Judge Lindberg is scheduled to retire soon, he added, so she may either have to oversee the board as a senior judge, or a new judge will have to be appointed.
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- FLDS family funeral feud; exiled brothers blocked from seeing mother before burial
- Colorado City police chief admits corruption; AG calls for disbandment of FLDS marshals
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