What’s next for a polygamous sect’s old land trust and why Utah should care

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) FLDS women stand outside a courtroom after a UEP hearing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

On Tuesday, a Utah judge ended his oversight of the United Effort Plan. That’s the charitable trust that at one time owned most of the homes and commercial properties in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz.

The twin towns are the longtime home of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But sect leaders don’t regain control of the properties just because 3rd District Judge Richard McKelvie no longer oversees the UEP.

Fourteen years of litigation has reformed the UEP into something that — if not necessarily secular — is described in governing documents as “religiously neutral.” State governments in Utah and Arizona have invested a lot in getting the UEP, Hildale and Colorado City to this point. (The Utah Legislature once financed a bailout of the trust.)

The end of the court case evoked some cheers.

“This is great news!” Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop said in a text message to The Salt Lake Tribune late Tuesday. “Anytime we can stay out of the court system, that allows more money to go back into the community.”

FLDS members who still follow the church’s imprisoned president and prophet, Warren Jeffs, however, are not pleased. Some of his former adherents are angry, too.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy Cooke heals at home June 21, 2019, after a bone marrow transplant. After she was diagnosed with cancer, Cooke wanted a home in Colorado City from the United Effort Plan so she could be near family and have better access to health care. A year into her treatment, the UEP took the home away from her.

One of them is Cindy Cooke, 39, who was granted a UEP house in Colorado City after being diagnosed with cancer. While she was in Salt Lake City receiving treatment, the UEP executive director notified her that house would be taken away from her.

Cooke had written a letter to McKelvie complaining. With the judge stepping away, Cooke believes she has no appeal options.

“I’m never going to go back in and apply for another house through the trust,” Cooke said in an interview Wednesday.

Other questions remain as the UEP enters a new era:

What is the UEP and how did it “own” two towns?

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The large community field in Hildale on Friday, October 24, 2008.

In 1942, polygamists living in what was then called Short Creek, which later incorporated into the two towns, decided to further their practice of so-called fundamentalist Mormonism. Landowners consecrated their homes, sometimes massive structures to house plural families, and properties into a trust. Those donors and their heirs became beneficiaries of that trust.

The polygamists’ prophet was the one who largely decided who lived or worked on the properties. Those who used the properties were expected to pay the property taxes. Tithes to the church doubled as rent payments. Those who left the faith lost their homes and any commercial or agricultural property they used.

By the new millennium, the UEP had grown to about 700 homes on both sides of the state line, plus commercial and agricultural grounds and even some ostensibly public facilities like parks, a fire station and a zoo. FLDS followers in British Columbia consecrated their properties, too. The UEP became a point of pride among polygamists, with the letters “UEP” inscribed on some of the homes. The trust totaled about $110 million in assets when Utah seized it in 2005.

Why did Utah take the UEP?

Then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was worried that all those in Short Creek could lose their homes.

That’s because when a group of young men, who had been kicked out of Short Creek, sued the UEP, Jeffs did not mount a legal defense. A default judgment could have meant plaintiffs would win all the assets in the trust.

So Shurtleff started the legal proceedings that McKelvie ended Tuesday. Arizona’s attorney general was a party in the case, too.

The Salt Lake City judge who preceded McKelvie appointed a fiduciary to manage the UEP — to make sure bills were paid, ensure properties were maintained, defend the trust against lawsuits, etc.

The UEP is slowly whittling itself by giving away property or selling it at low cost to the aforementioned beneficiaries. Some property also has been sold to outsiders when other buyers haven’t emerged. The fiduciary has been replaced by a board, which has hired an executive director and other staffers.

Didn’t Jeffs and the FLDS fight this?

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A photo of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs hangs on the front window of an FLDS family's Hildale home, which is scheduled for eviction by the UEP Trust, on Thursday, May 11, 2017.

Sometimes, and in unconventional ways that helped keep the UEP under oversight for so long. At first, the FLDS didn’t challenge the seizure. After a few years, the church did mount a legal challenge. It lost.

Jeffs loyalists ran the municipal governments. That’s where the UEP encountered pushback. It took a Utah Supreme Court ruling to force Hildale to recognize a UEP plan to subdivide properties. In Colorado City, it’s taken orders by a federal judge to subdivide property so deeds could be issued.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file FLDS members refused to cooperate with the trust. They would live in properties without signing agreements with the new UEP management. For years, trust managers did not know who was living in most of the houses. They also let property taxes go unpaid until a tax sale was imminent, creating ongoing anxiety for trust managers.

FLDS members — and even some former members who didn’t want to cooperate — gave multiple reasons for this. They believed the government intervention had defiled what had been consecrated to God. They resented that a $100 monthly fee the fiduciary had imposed was going to pay him and lawyers. The UEP also hired as staff former church members the remaining FLDS considered apostates. The resistance spurred the UEP go to court hundreds of times in the past 14 years to evict people.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune An FLDS woman confronts UEP agent Ted Barlow and Mohave County Constable Mike Hoggard as they evict her from her home in Colorado City, AZ, facing eviction, Tuesday May 9, 2017.

Didn’t the Utah Legislature pay the UEP?

To cover fees for the fiduciary, attorneys, staffers and other professionals, the UEP for years racked up millions of dollars in bills. The FLDS resistance meant little revenue for the trust. So, in 2011, then-3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg ordered Utah to pay the UEP to cover those debts.

In 2013, the Utah Legislature appropriated a $5.69 million loan. The UEP eventually repaid $4 million. The rest was forgiven.

What improved for the UEP?

Court victories allowed the UEP to start selling homes. Meanwhile, thousands of people have left the FLDS and many of Jeffs’ devotees have fled Short Creek. The changing demographics have meant fewer UEP antagonists.

Who gets a house or property and for how much?

(Tribune file photo) "UEP" sign on a home in the polygamist community of Hildale.

That’s at the discretion of the UEP board. Under court oversight, the board has established criteria and published an application petitioners can submit.

Petitioners must describe the contributions they made to the UEP. (Did they consecrate property? Contribute labor? Pay for upkeep or taxes?) The petition can also describe any history with the property. (Did they live in the home?) The board also considers what it has paid to survey and subdivide the property and closing costs for the deed transfer.

Some older beneficiaries who spent their own money and labor constructing their house and making contributions to the community have purchased the deeds to their homes for only the cost of paying the back taxes and reimbursing the UEP for surveying and closing costs. People who didn’t contribute as much to the UEP have had to pay more to own a home.

In May, the UEP published a notice that it would sell a 9,445-square-foot home on a 1.77-acre lot in Colorado City. While the assessed value is $551,868, the board planned to sell the home for $12,265.

That same notice said the UEP would sell a 2,128-square-foot home on a 1-acre lot in Hildale. The parcel had an assessed value of $80,100 and the UEP was offering it for $69,558.

How much property is left?

UEP Executive Director Jeff Barlow said Thursday the trust still owns about 550 homes in Short Creek, plus about 100 commercial properties and 200 vacant lots.

Barlow said the UEP currently has about 1,400 petitions to occupy a home or receive a deed for one.

There also are the properties in British Columbia. They are being maintained by locals with oversight from the UEP board about 1,100 miles away in Short Creek. In all, the trust’s annual report, filed earlier this month, placed assets at $104 million.

Why did the judge end his oversight and who’s in charge now?

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Judge Richard D. McKelvie speaks during a UEP hearing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

McKelvie said the UEP has been operating well the past three years, and he saw no more reason to oversee it. The UEP board will continue operating the trust. It just won’t file regular reports with McKelvie and give him the opportunity to override its decisions.

A judge appointed the original seven board members. Since then, the board has been picking its own members.

What did the dissenters want?

At least a handful of former FLDS members, represented by attorney Roger Hoole, on Tuesday asked McKelvie to retain oversight. The group also wanted McKelvie to order the UEP to provide more information about who is living or using UEP property and to begin holding quarterly hearings to consider concerns.

Hoole said he feared that board members were making decisions to benefit themselves or friends and family. His clients signed a petition for McKelvie, but redacted their names. Hoole said those signers worry the UEP will retaliate by not giving them or their families homes or raising purchase prices.

As for those still in the FLDS, they seem to want the homes and properties back with no UEP involvement. Jeffs’ loyalists and their few supporters have asked why they can’t be given the properties that are sitting empty anyway.

What do the dissenters allege?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy Cooke heals at home with her fiance, Patrick Floyd, June 21, 2019 after a bone marrow transplant. After she was diagnosed with cancer, Cooke wanted a home in Colorado City from the United Effort Plan so she could be near family and have better access to health care. A year into her treatment, the UEP took the home away from her.

People such as Cooke have complained that board decisions have been arbitrary. In her case, Cooke says Barlow, the UEP executive director, told her over the phone, while she was in Salt Lake City receiving cancer treatment, that the board decided she didn’t need a home in Short Creek. Barlow also accused her of subleasing to a stepsister, Cooke says.

Cooke denies she was subleasing. She said her stepsister needed a place to live, too, and was caring for the home while Cooke was in Salt Lake City. Cooke also says she had been catching up the home on its overdue property taxes — a requirement before she could seek the deed from the UEP. Now Cooke has lost the home and nearly $5,000 in taxes she paid.

Jared Steed says he would like his father’s old home in part so his family members have a place to go if they ever choose to leave the FLDS. That branch of his family is also at risk of being evicted from the home where they are living elsewhere in Short Creek, he said.

“I wanted it for the family,” Steed said Wednesday. “It should stay in the family. I’m his son. I should be able to get my own dad’s house.”

Steed said the UEP has told him he can’t have the house because it doesn’t meet his needs. Steed said he asked how to contact McKelvie to make a complaint, and UEP board members or staff didn’t give him an answer.

When Cooke asked to how to reach McKelvie, she was referred to his previous rulings posted on the UEP website.

Barlow said he could not talk about specific UEP applicants. In response to general questions, Barlow said the trust expects its houses to be the occupant’s primary residence and that subleasing is not allowed. The board also takes into account family size and need when assigning properties.

Appeals can be made to the UEP board and people denied or removed from one home can apply for another, Barlow said.

As for FLDS members, Barlow said the UEP board would love for those members to live in the homes.

“An FLDS family,” Barlow said, “that wanted to move back to the community [could] absolutely get back into a home by following the same process as anyone else. And, in fact, there are reasonable accommodations we can make if there are barriers we can remove.”

Some properties are sitting empty, Barlow said, because no one has petitioned for them.

What about conflict-of-interest questions?

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) UEP board members Shirlee Draper, Arnold Richter, Jeff Barlow and Don Timpson listen during a UEP hearing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Barlow acknowledges some properties are leased or sold to board members or UEP staff. But he says that happens only in the same manner as other properties are distributed.

Barlow can cite himself as an example. To ease the housing shortage, the UEP board wanted to convert some commercial properties into apartments. When no other developer could be found, he said, the board approved Barlow to be the developer on one such project.

The UEP’s revised charter requires board members to declare conflicts of interest. Barlow says board members often leave the meeting room if they have a conflict so the remaining members can discuss the case without them.

But board members approving deals for fellow board members or UEP staff like Barlow still makes some uncomfortable. Richard Holm, who has been a supporter of the reformed UEP and has bought a home and other property from the trust, said he prefers more real estate be placed in a public auction. That would reduce the ability of the board to pick winners and losers and accelerate the dissolution of the UEP.

“For the job to be finished,” Holm said, “the trust needs to be gone.”

Is the UEP going away?

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A group of FLDS members move a modular home from a lot in Hildale as part of an eviction from UEP trust property on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. Many FLDS members have refused to cooperate with the state-controlled land trust and are now facing eviction.

Not anytime soon. Property may be available at less than its market value, but a lot of people exit the FLDS with no money, and it takes them years to raise the thousands needed to pay the back taxes and what fees the UEP charges. Barlow said some beneficiaries may never seek a deed to a property and instead continue paying $100 a month to the UEP and pay the property taxes.

As for the British Columbia properties, due to Canadian laws, they can’t be divided and divvied like the Utah and Arizona properties without someone having to pay millions in taxes. There’s a real possibility the UEP remains in perpetuity for that reason alone.

There also has been discussion of unloading the properties that can be sold and placing the proceeds in an endowment. The money could be used to fund scholarships, improve health care and meet other community needs.

Barlow said the UEP also plans to improve life in Short Creek with new parks, hiking trails and by turning the former FLDS meetinghouse into a community center.