Homeownership signals another sweeping change in FLDS community of Colorado City

Composite image created by Cody Blowers, St. George News

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — An unprecedented Arizona real estate closing has opened the door for Colorado City residents to own the deed to their homes – a first in the town’s 100-year history as an unparalleled shift continues throughout the area known as Short Creek.

After the Short Creek Subdivision was approved, paving the way for privatized home ownership, a celebration took place in the Mohave County Community College auditorium in Colorado City. The Oct. 12 event included two guest speakers – Mohave County District Supervisor Gary Watson and Arizona state Rep. Regina Cobb – who addressed a large crowd of community leaders, residents and officials.

Amid a crowd that filled the auditorium, several residents were presented with the deeds to the homes they have lived in for years, deeds previously owned by the United Effort Plan, a trust that was established in 1942 by leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to manage its properties and assets as a means to safeguard the material wealth of church members, including land assets.

Four families were presented the deeds to their homes during the celebration, symbolizing the monumental changes that continue to take place within the twin cities.

The parceling and sale of the properties came in the wake of a federal lawsuit in Arizona that was decided in June 2017. Once the application process started, it took more than a year to complete as it made its way through several Arizona state agencies for approval.

The delay was primarily due to the number of homes constructed below present building codes.

“Basically the entire subdivision had to be grandfathered in,” UEP board member Shirlee Draper said. “This application was very unique, which made it difficult to process.”

Draper is also one of the founding members of the Short Creek Community Alliance, a grassroots group of concerned citizens that launched in June 2016. The group has fueled many of the changes that have swept through the twin cities and continues to support the struggling communities.

“The fact that these families can now get the deeds to their homes is exciting and opens up so many opportunities for this community,” Draper said.

In the 2017 federal case, the court found that the Town of Colorado City and the City of Hildale engaged in a decades-long pattern or practice of police misconduct and housing discrimination. To provide expansive relief, the court ordered Colorado City to divide town blocks into multiple parcels that could then be sold to families as a way to remedy the violations and to prevent future discrimination.

Jeff Barlow, an attorney who has been tasked with managing the UEP trust under the direction of a local board of trustees, said that while the trust was not involved in the lawsuits, the judge understood that dividing the land into parcels and making the deeds available and allowing these families to own their homes would remedy the discriminatory practices that had gone on for years.

One of the first priorities of the UEP under Barlow has been to oversee the project of subdividing the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City and offering the properties back to those residents who poured their time and resources into the community while they were still in the church, even those families Warren Jeffs exiled from Short Creek years before.

With Arizona’s approval, that objective is now possible for the 1,300 applicants the board is currently handling, Barlow said, adding that families already living in their homes are the first to be processed through.

Privatized home ownership has been taking place in Hildale for more than two years, after Utah 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg ruled that the communal property could be sold in October 2014.

In Colorado City, the situation was different since the City Council did not support the move and waited for the federal case ruling to be rendered in Arizona, Draper said, and only then did city officials comply with the courts.

From excommunication to coming back together

Until recently the UEP trust owned all of the property in both Colorado City and Hildale, and in turn, the community’s wealth placed in the trust was redistributed to FLDS members to fulfill their “just wants and needs,” according to the trust’s founding documents.

That seemed to work well until 2002, when Warren Jeffs became the prophet of the FLDS church and took complete control of the financial, civic and religious infrastructure of Short Creek.

Over the subsequent five years, it is estimated that Jeffs was responsible for excommunicating hundreds of men. Those exiled from the church not only lost the connection to their families but also their homes, property and livelihoods.

Later, the exiles began organizing and filed a series of class action lawsuits against the church and the UEP to regain control of the land they earned through their labor.

The UEP, worth an estimated $114 million, was taken over by the state of Utah in 2005 when the courts determined the assets were being mismanaged, and a Utah probate court placed the UEP under the oversight of special fiduciary Bruce Wisan, who was not a member of the FLDS church.

Over the course of several years a majority of the lawsuits were decided in the favor of the exiles, who won the right to move back to Short Creek and reclaim their homes and property.

However, the 2005 Utah ruling also required the FLDS members still living in Short Creek to sign occupancy agreements, pay a $100 per month occupancy fee to cover the costs of administering the trust and to pay and keep current any property taxes, which some members refused to do.

While many families were evicted as a result, Barlow said many others worked with officials, complied with the occupancy requirements and remained in their homes.

“Not all FLDS families refused. As a matter of fact, many families signed the agreement in 2007 and 2008,” he said. “Even now, more than 50 percent of those families who are delinquent on their taxes have reached an agreement to remain in their homes.”

Relations drastically improved once the local board was put in place, Barlow said, and there has been a great deal of success. Many families have worked with the board to resolve the difficulties that stood in the way of their remaining in the community.

“The communication is improving all of the time,” he said, “and we are working with these families so that they don’t have to be uprooted and relocate, instead they can stay in their home.”

Over the last year, a majority of FLDS members submitted letters of intent saying they will live in and maintain homes owned by the UEP, as well as pay the property taxes on their respective homes. Recently, many have signed the occupancy agreements.

Anyone who had made a contribution to the trust before it was taken over by the state in 2005 was eligible to apply for the deed to their property, based on the value of the property and their contribution to the trust.

The discount the family receives is contingent on their level of contribution made in the building of the trust properties, Barlow said, regardless of which property or project they helped to build.

“There are still many FLDS families living here, and others have returned,” Barlow said, “but we are working on building the community now, and things are coming together.”

Colorado City Mayor Joseph Allred was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Email: cblowers@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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