Neighbors, county want FLDS to repair road damage

The Rapid City Journal, South Dakota/May 22, 2011

After seven years of almost constant construction at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound near Pringle, Custer County commissioners have said they won't issue any more building permits to the group until improvements to Farmer Road are under way and all delinquent property taxes are paid.

The FLDS's neighbors say it's about time.

Farmer Road is a short stretch of narrow, unimproved county road that dead ends at the western rim of Red Canyon, at a cabin owned by real estate developer Jim Farmer. Shortly before it arrives at Farmer's driveway, it bisects 140 acres of property owned by the United Order of South Dakota, which is the legal name of an FLDS community that belongs to a polygamist Mormon sect headed by its now-jailed leader, Warren Jeffs.

Surrounded by a tall, barbed-wire fence, patrolled from a guard tower and lined with no-trespassing signs, the compound obviously values its privacy. Few of its residents are ever seen by outsiders, and those who are quickly duck into sheds or drive away when they spot a strange vehicle on the road. Attempts to contact compound residents were unsuccessful. Phone calls to the compound by the Journal are either disconnected upon identification or not returned.

But Farmer Road is still a public right of way, albeit through some very private property, and the Custer County Commission expects the FLDS to bring it, and an accompanying section of 20 Mile Road, up to county and U.S. Forest Service specifications in five pre-arranged sections. In return for the successful completion of each phase of roadway at FLDS expense, the county will consider the issuance of more building permits to the United Order.

The compound must also clear up its tax arrears of about $178,000 in 2008 and 2009 property taxes, according to a new resolution approved in April by the Custer County Board of Commissioners. The county's new policy says no building or construction permits will be issued to any property owners who are delinquent on their property taxes.

"We are so fed up with FLDS," said Cookie Hickstein. "We don't drive semis over the road; they do. They impact that road greatly."

Richard and Cookie Hickstein are nearby homeowners who blame their FLDS neighbors for the poor condition of both Farmer Road and the short section of 20 Mile Road that connects the FLDS compound to Pleasant Valley Road, a gravel road in good condition.

Heavy winter snows and a wet spring, combined with recent heavy truck traffic from large loads of gravel being stockpiled at the FLDS compound, have reduced some parts of Farmer Road to little more than a narrow trail navigable only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle under certain conditions. Culverts are routinely crushed, and deep ruts often mar the road.

"They're bringing semis in through that mud, and they don't care," Hickstein said in April. "We know they're bringing in log timbers and have hauled gravel for two weeks."

The current condition of the road is a tribute to seven years of heavy truck traffic that has allowed the United Order to create the equivalent of a small, self-sufficient community in the middle of a forest. Semitrailers filled with building materials and a tank truck that hauled water around the clock, seven days a week for more than a year before the compound had its own well, have damaged the roadway, the Hicksteins said. Neighbor Karl Von Rump wants the county to begin enforcing its six-ton weight limit on the road by posting signs to that effect.

Homeowners in the area are reluctant to put money into a road improvement district as long as the FLDS compound continues to damage it with heavy loads.

"We thought it would stop, and it hasn't," Hickstein said of the FLDS traffic that in the past two months has included numerous semi loads of gravel and manure.

"Everybody expects the FLDS to do it; that's the bottom line," Hickstein said of funding road improvements. Farmer said Custer County shares the blame with the FLDS for allowing the road situation along 20 Mile and Farmer roads to go unaddressed for too many years.

"The problem all goes back to the county being lax in their policies," Farmer said.

Custer County Planning Director David Green said the compound would have been best developed as a Planned Unit Development community, which it was not. But now that it exists, county officials must be careful not to violate any of its legal rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law designed, in part, to protect religious freedoms in terms of zoning regulations.

Green is one of the few South Dakotans who have ever been invited inside the Pringle-area compound, and even Green hasn't seen much that the secretive community doesn't want him to.

"Septic systems. I only see septic systems," said Green, when asked about day-to-day life inside the United Order compound. "Precautions are taken so that I don't see a lot of people in the compound other than those who are involved with septic systems."

Green's job duties include inspecting septic systems in the county, and his most recent visit to the compound was on April 13, when he issued an operating permit for a wastewater system that will service the compound's newest building: a 13,000-square-foot chapel and education center valued at $1.3 million. As usual, he found the septic system was constructed and installed according to all state and county standards.

The compound has its own state-licensed and certified waste-water operator, which is a simple matter of taking the mandated state exams.

Neighbors worry that compound construction is continuing, without the required building permits, but Green said he saw no evidence of that in mid-April.

"There are no new building projects, with or without permits," he said. A large slab of concrete is being used to hold gravel.

There have been no road improvements to Farmer Road yet, either, Green said.

Lynn Kolund, district ranger for the Hell Canyon District of the U.S. Forest Service, said USFS staff met with Ben "Ed" Johnson, a leader and spokesman for the compound, in the fall of 2010 to make him aware of Forest Service road

standards. At that time, the United Order paid the Forest Service $93 for a handful of pine trees that it will remove in order to widen the length of the road to the required 24-feet width.

The Forest Service is involved because half a mile of 20 Mile Road crosses Black Hills National Forest land. In 1995, the Forest Service granted the county an easement to maintain the road.

The Hicksteins are frustrated by the slow progress.

"My husband talked to the FLDS about the roads and permits. He went up to the tower and waited until they came out. That is what we have to do to talk to anyone," Cookie Hickstein said. A compound resident told the Hicksteins on April 8 that they have no scheduled date to begin rebuilding the road. "The guy went on about the cost of doing the work," Cookie Hickstein said.

The compound's ongoing $178,000 tax delinquency on its Custer County property taxes for 2008 and 2009 may be an indication that the compound is having financial problems.

But there is no doubt that it has the necessary heavy machinery to do the work, according to neighbors.

An assortment of heavy machinery, including road graders, dump trucks and cranes for moving heavy logs, are regularly seen on compound property.

"If they don't have it here, they'll bring it in," Hickstein said.

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