An old deal with a polygamous prophet has a Utah community headed toward a land dispute

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marc Fletcher stands near a piece of art his mother, Miriam Weible painted, of Maxwell Canyon, at his office in South Jordan. Thursday, May 2, 2019.

Hildale • Marc Fletcher wants people to know his family came to Hildale before the polygamists.

The branch of Fletcher’s family known as the Lauritzens settled in Maxwell Canyon in 1912, according to a family history. The area was called Short Creek then. Fletcher said the Laurtizens had no affiliation with the polygamists who moved into Short Creek a few years later, though a few members of the family have married into the group during the past century.

In 1961, Fletcher’s great-uncle sold 120 acres in Maxwell Canyon to the land trust operated by the polygamists’ then-prophet. That ground, sitting among pristine redrock spires and juniper trees, is considered some of the best real estate in what’s now Hildale. The current owner, as well as Hildale’s mayor, has visions for a resort-type development there.

Fletcher doesn’t. He maintains when his great-uncle sold the acres, it was with the agreement it be kept as green space.

“I want them to honor the agreement,” Fletcher said of the land trust and the property’s current owner. “I’d like to see them leave it a wilderness. I’d like to see them leave the native vegetation that’s all there.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Attendees at a memorial for the 13 (and 1 still missing) victims of a September 14th flash flood. The memorial was held in Maxwell Park in Hildale, Saturday September 26, 2015.

The dispute over what was agreed to long ago arrives as residents of Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., try to build a tourism economy. The community sits between Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. The Bureau of Land Management already oversees a wilderness area and a scenic backcountry byway that abut Hildale.

Business development where there was none before often creates conflicts, but Fletcher’s claims demonstrate unique issues in Hildale and Colorado City, which many still refer to jointly as Short Creek. Much of the real estate and community properties in the two towns used to be controlled by what became the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

FLDS leaders decided how property was used. Even if those uses or intentions weren’t recorded on paper, they were often known within the community, or at least by the sect members with a relationship to the property.

But as more Short Creek residents have left the FLDS, and the community has become more secular, heeding the letter of the law sometimes collides with Short Creek’s old ways. The conflicts were on display last year as Hildale’s municipal government collected residential propane tanks. Residents contended FLDS leaders sold or gave them the tanks long ago, but the city had documents showing it owned them.

| courtesy of the Utah Historical Society Then Fundamentalist of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Leroy S. Johnson talks on July 26, 1953, photo from the state of Arizona's raid on the Short Creek polygamous community. The photo is part of a collection recently made available from Salt Lake Tribune negatives digitized by the Utah Historical Society.

In the case of the Maxwell Canyon property, Fletcher has the 1961 sale agreement signed by his great-uncle and Leroy Johnson. Johnson was then the prophet of the polygamists in Short Creek and the representative of the land trust they operated, called the United Effort Plan.

Fletcher provided a signed copy of the contract to The Salt Lake Tribune. A clause says “the Buyer will set aside the… land as a park.”

That agreement, however, was never recorded with Washington County. That creates a legal question of whether anyone needs to recognize the park clause.

“Verification of what this means and what this doesn’t mean is beyond the grave at this point and may require judicial determination,” Rick Davis, the UEP’s real estate attorney, said in a phone interview Friday.

Johnson died in 1986. The state of Utah took over the UEP in 2005 out of concern it was being mismanaged by FLDS President Warren Jeffs. In 2016, the UEP sold 95 acres of what had been the Lauritzen property in a public auction to Don Timpson for $250,000, according to public records. Timpson bought an adjacent parcel in the canyon from another seller in 2017.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Don Timpson leads a meeting of the United Effort Plan board in Hildale, Saturday February 11, 2017.

Timpson also now sits on the UEP board. Since buying the property, he has installed a few cabins and camping sites on the Maxwell Canyon property.

“The tourism future," Timpson said in a phone interview Friday, "if there is one, it would be associated with the mountains.”

He’d like to build something more impressive. An illustrated concept plan he shared with Hildale’s government shows “glamping” sites — high-end tent camping — as well as a lodge, horse corrals, trails and even a Patagonia store on the property one day. (A spokeswoman for Patagonia said it has no plans for a Hildale store and the company’s name was placed in the plan without its permission.)

Timpson said the concept plan given to the town represents only possibilities for the Maxwell Canyon. Nothing, he said, is imminent.

Timpson said one reason he bought the properties was so they wouldn’t be subdivided for home construction. Among his visions for Maxwell Canyon are commercial venues locals can rent for family reunions or weddings.

“The people have always kind of viewed the canyon as theirs," he said.

If even a portion of Timpson’s vision came to fruition, it could be a financial boon to Short Creek. The community is below the Utah and Arizona medians in major economic indicators.

Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop said the town is trying to be known as “Zion’s backyard,” but it needs more restaurants, retail and lodging. She supports Timpson’s dream and would be OK if he wanted to build motels or cabins in Maxwell Canyon one day.

“We want Hildale to be seen as a destination,” Jessop said, “not a place to just drive by.”

She notes conflicts over how to change communities arise everywhere. The mayor believes the key is to give all parties an opportunity to express their views — even if they all can’t get their way.

“People feel better when they feel they’ve been heard,” Jessop said.

After the Lauritzen family sold those acres in Maxwell Canyon, Hildale leased other property there from the BLM to create what’s now called Maxwell Park.

Fletcher does not oppose some of Timpson’s property going toward expanding Maxwell Park.

“But I don’t want the commercial side in the park,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher’s family still owns a cabin in the canyon. He enjoyed the Colorado City Music Festival held in the park in April, he said, and generally supports trying to create a tourism economy in Short Creek. He insists that economy would be better served by keeping Maxwell Canyon as something like it is now and not by putting commercial developments there.

If Timpson ever followed through on his conceptual plan, Fletcher said, the resort’s parking lot would border the lot where the Lauritzen family cabin sits.

Besides, Fletcher said, the local prophet — not just an executive or CEO — said there wouldn’t be any developments.

“That’s what’s gnawing at me,” Fletcher said. “You’ve got someone that’s part of the organization, they’re at the highest level of their organization, and they’re ignoring the agreement that their organization signed.”