Colorado City, Arizona -- The 6-acre parcel of land is enclosed on all sides by tall, white fencing. “No trespassing” signs are posted intermittently, and vehicles drive in and out on a dirt road through the only opening in the fence. Beyond the walls, huge, white tents stand in one row and long, white trailers in another.
“It’s quite the concentration camp,” Isaac Wyler, an employee and consultant with the United Effort Plan Trust, said.
The property, situated between Arizona Avenue and Uzona Avenue in Colorado City, Arizona, is reportedly being turned into a mass housing compound for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by the local city government.
Wyler said Colorado City changed its bylaws earlier this year in order to convert the former industrial park into residential land. Approximately 19 tents as big as hay barns have been erected, he said, and what he described as “FEMA trailers” have also been moved onto the property; presumably, he said, the trailers will be reserved for FLDS families who are in better standing within the hierarchy of the church than those who will be living in the tents. Lean-tos are also being constructed where the future residents of this tent city will shower, wash their clothes and eat.
“They are paying so much more for (the tent city) by far than to just keep these women and children in the homes they’re at,” Wyler said. “It’s ridiculous.”
“That’s going to make me sick when they put a bunch of ladies and children in this tent city in the winter,” he added.
The irony, Wyler said, is FLDS people are currently losing their homes simply because they refuse to cooperate with the UEP, which is a trust that was created by the FLDS church in the 1940s but has been reformed by Utah’s 3rd District Court to administer housing solutions and benefits for trust participants. In order to stay in their homes, residents of UEP-held properties must become current on their property taxes and either go through the process of acquiring deeds to their homes or pay a $100 monthly occupancy fee to the UEP. Instead of encouraging FLDS members to cooperate with the UEP, however, church and city leaders are going to great expense to create a communal camp for the evictees to live in.
“We only ask them to pay their taxes and an occupancy fee and sign an agreement with the trust, and they won’t do it,” Wyler said.
FLDS members are, in fact, forbidden by the church to communicate with the UEP or even read UEP notices posted on their doors that contain information about the eviction proceedings and how to keep their homes. Wyler said the FLDS church has appointed individuals to remove the UEP’s notices and dispose of them whenever they are posted on the doors of FLDS homes. Between nine and 11 notices have been served on each affected home since eviction proceedings began in July, he said, in an effort to get the residents to come forward and work with the UEP so they can remain on their properties.
“They get caught reading (the notices), they’ll get kicked out of their church,” Wyler said.
“When people get educated, they’re not easily controlled,” he added, “but (FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs) has done everything he can to try and stop that.”
What most FLDS members don’t know, he said, is UEP-managed properties in both Colorado City and the neighboring community of Hildale are at risk of being lost altogether in tax sales if the back taxes on the properties aren’t paid. On the Arizona side of the border, UEP-managed properties could be sold off by the state to investors as early as February because the taxes on the properties will be five years past due come 2015.
“(FLDS people) don’t believe it when we tell them,” Wyler said. “They think we’re making it up.”
“We can’t do anything about it except do our jobs,” he added. “It may make us look bad, but in reality, if you look on the face of it … if we don’t get control of those properties, Arizona state will take the property away anyway.”
Wyler said court-appointed fiduciary Bruce Wisan, longtime overseer of the UEP Trust, narrowly avoided losing the commercial property where an FLDS-run grocery store once operated in Colorado City. He was able to sell the property to a private buyer just two weeks before the property was set to be seized permanently by the lien holder. Wisan used the money from the sale to pay off some of the back taxes owed by the UEP, Wyler said. The grocery store building has since been converted into a hardware store.
With the threat of additional properties being permanently lost in the very near future, evictions must take place when occupants refuse to pay their taxes and the UEP fees, Wyler said, and new residents must be brought in who are willing to pay the taxes and either obtain deeds to the properties or pay the court-mandated occupancy fees.
The tragedy, Wyler said, is FLDS members believe their taxes have already been paid because they gave the money for the taxes to their church leaders.
“That’s what we’re hearing,” he said. “People are getting tax bills and they’re saying, ‘We paid those taxes. We paid them to our church.’”
But whatever church leaders did with the funds, they didn’t pay them to the government. Wyler said more and more FLDS members are leaving the religion and finding that out the hard way.
“When they get out, it’s just like a wake-up,” he said. “They just get blasted with this information, then they get mad because they’ve been lied to all these years.”
First round of evictions completed
This summer, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg ordered eviction proceedings to begin on a handful of Hildale homes – 16 in all – for which the occupants were delinquent on taxes and ignoring the court’s mandate to pay the $100 monthly occupancy fee.
“Basically, she wants a working relationship with every property within the trust,” Wyler said.
Of the initial 16 homes, the occupancy of two properties was able to be resolved without eviction proceedings; for the other 14 homes, the eviction process went forward.
Some occupants packed up and left of their own accord after being served the early notices. In other cases, there have been delays, Wyler said, including residents claiming an occupant of one home was a deployed military member and, therefore, could not be evicted – ironic, he said, since the FLDS church is oppositional to the federal government and the church’s members don’t serve in the military. But because occupants made these claims, it became necessary for the UEP to refute the assertions and prove they weren’t true, further lengthening the eviction process.
In one case, Wyler said, a home that had been vacated was later found to have been taken over by “homeless” FLDS members – some of them young boys – who had lost their homes and families as a result of church discipline. The individuals were sleeping on mattresses on the floor of the home, some of them without blankets. When their living conditions were discovered and help was offered to them, they refused it, Wyler said, even leaving donated food boxes untouched. Though they had been bumped to the bottom of the FLDS totem pole, he said, they were still loyal to and under the thumb of FLDS leaders.
Eviction proceedings for the first batch of homes is now concluding, Wyler said. On Dec. 5, constables enforced evictions on seven of the 14 homes, and the locks on the homes were changed. Earlier this week, the same was done on the seven remaining homes.
“Additionally, there are going to (be many) more evictions,” Wyler said.
Commercial property evictions
Wyler said commercial and residential evictions are being handled separately, and approximately eight commercial properties have been repossessed so far by the UEP. One of them was the former Meadowayne Dairy, which was reclaimed by the UEP on Nov. 5 after months of notices being served and battles being fought with local law enforcement.
Wyler said when he first attempted, on behalf of the UEP, to take possession of the dairy property in October, the local marshals arrived and threatened to take him, a cameraman and even the locksmith to jail for doing so. So, the second time around, Wyler was backed by Mohave County Sheriff’s deputies when he arrived to have the locks changed on the property.
A large crowd assembled near the dairy when the locks were changed, he said, but with the deputies there, the process was completed without much incident.
Despite the hubbub over the dairy being seized, the irony is that the dairy’s owners had vacated the property months before, he said, removing all their livestock and completely abandoning the building rather than cooperate with the UEP to remain on the property and keep the dairy functioning.
The day the dairy’s locks were changed, employees at the Dairy Store, which is located down the street from the dairy and still currently in operation, said they believed the dairy was being seized as an act of persecution against the FLDS people and that no eviction notice had ever been served.
“These people have no idea what’s going on,” Wyler said. “All they know is that they hear in church that they’re getting kicked out by the government, and they don’t know why.”
“They have no idea why they’re losing the dairy or why the dairy’s even gone,” he added. “We didn’t want the dairy gone – we’d just as soon have it there. In fact, we’re looking for someone who wants to run a dairy.”
As more evictions are served and new occupants take up residence in the seized homes and businesses, Wyler said, the border towns of Colorado City and Hildale will continue slowly transforming into a new community.
“At the rate it’s going, within two years we’re hoping it will be a totally different town that what it is now,” he said.
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