Property tax dispute threatens band of polygamists

Amherst Times/April 21, 2006
By Kirk Johnson

Thousands of polygamists are engaged in a highly unusual standoff here over property taxes that could ultimately cost them their houses or thrust them into a mainstream America they fear and despise.

In one corner is a group of 8,000 or so adherents of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon Church that had long paid the property taxes of its members, sometimes even rolling a wheelbarrow through meetings to collect the needed cash.

At the other corner is a stocky accountant from Salt Lake City, Bruce R. Wisan, who says he is determined to help the church members even if they do not want it.

The church hierarchy is in chaos. Its former leader is on the run, facing criminal charges of arranging sex between a minor and an adult in a polygamous marriage, leaving the old tax-collection system in shambles. Now the property taxes for hundreds of houses — around $1.3 million — are overdue and mounting.

The church's remaining leaders have told people living in the houses not to pay. Mr. Wisan has promised to make them do so. A state judge appointed him last year to oversee the land on which most church members live. A trust the church established generations ago controls the land.

Mr. Wisan says he has been frustrated at every step, including efforts to communicate with residents. Mass mailings to residents seeking tax payment have gone unanswered, and some were found strewn across the floor of the post office, unopened, Mr. Wisan said. His representatives sent to knock on doors here in town and in the twin border community of Colorado City, Ariz., have invariably encountered people not home. Some holdouts have even started building walls around their houses.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Wisan took the extraordinary step of convening a town hall meeting to wheedle, threaten and beg residents to break with tradition and pay their individual tax bills — and thus, in a very real way, enter the American mainstream.

If they refuse, he said, they risk losing their houses when the courts settle the issues of law and faith. He also threatened to evict them personally.

"It's a basic obligation," Mr. Wisan told the meeting of more than 40 people. "My position is that people have to pay to live on trust property."

Mr. Wisan was appointed to oversee the trust after a judge concluded that church leaders, the objects of suits in recent years, including one by a group of young men who said they had been wrongly evicted from the community, were not adequately defending themselves in court and were risking the residents' welfare.

After Mr. Wisan's appointment, church leaders ordered people to stop contributing to the church fund that went to pay the taxes.

In some ways, Hildale and Colorado City, in a region that is home to the largest concentration of polygamists in the country, could be ordinary Southwestern farming towns. Plowed fields are interspersed by houses and dirt roads. Horses graze in pastures against the backdrop of red-rock hills. What is different are the houses themselves.

Some look more like dormitories, several stories high with rows of windows. Others are unfinished.

Residents say the community rarely borrows money, and so houses are built, or improved, with cash when it is available.

Walls line some main roads. Some are stone, others are wood. All are high enough to conceal the houses and their worlds from the street, and they are often marked with prominent trespassing warnings.

The entanglements of religion and real estate run deep in Hildale, which has had polygamist communities for the better part of a century. Most everyone who showed up on Wednesday night had been excommunicated by the F.L.D.S. church or had left voluntarily, some attendees said, because most active members were following the church instructions to keep away.

What that meant was that Mr. Wisan had to communicate through the people at the meeting to the invisible and much larger community beyond. About 8,000 to 10,000 people are believed be living on trust lands.

The numbers are uncertain, and their identities in the secretive community are also uncertain, said Jeffrey L. Shields, a lawyer who works with Mr. Wisan. The trust has an assessed value of $110 million and consists mainly of the towns plus a few lots, several thousand acres altogether, though a full survey is under way, Mr. Wisan said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, has no connection to the F.L.D.S., and disavowed polygamy as the price of statehood in 1890. Groups like the fundamentalist one split off over that decision, denouncing it as a political compromise and not the word of God.

Mr. Wisan told the meeting, which people videotaped, that one family close to the indicted leader, Warren Jeffs, compromised and quietly paid $14,000 in taxes last week. He also said he had identified 75 prominent families with the largest houses and tax bills and planned to pursue them, as well.

Mr. Wisan said it was too early to say what might occur next. Some residents predict that the community could disperse to other parts of the West or to Canada, taking a page from the Mormons of old who came to Utah in 1847 to avoid persecution. Others fear violence.

Mr. Wisan on Wednesday urged people to stay, saying abandoning houses here and starting over somewhere else would be financially disastrous. Even for those who want to stay, the road promises to be winding at best.

Ross Chatwin, who said he had been forced out of the church, sued and won the right to stay in his house. He said he wanted to continue to do so, though he does not own the house because it is on trust land.

Another man said he had built a house on the trust site and lost it when the church denounced him. He wants to return.

One man who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals by the church said he was a member and was trying to have his extended family of more than 40 siblings from the wives — "the mothers"— agree that the old days were over and that they had to deal with the likes of Mr. Wisan.

Lenore Holm, a former member who fought the church years ago over what she concluded was the forced marriage of her teenage daughter to an older man, asked Mr. Wisan why money from the trust, including the sale of some land, could not go to paying the tax bill for everyone.

Mr. Wisan said that it would simply not be fair, because that would let freeloaders who are avoiding their taxes off the hook at the expense of the trust and that the court had assigned him to protect the community as a whole.

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