The Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A Utah judge said Wednesday she might consider allowing the highest bidder to buy more than 400 acres of land where a southern Utah-based polygamous church headed by jailed leader Warren Jeffs had planned to build a temple.
With hundreds of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints members gathered quietly outside the courtroom and across the street, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg heard three hours of testimony Wednesday about whether the land, known as Berry Knoll Farm, should be sold.
The land is part of the United Effort Plan Trust, a communal land trust tied to the church.
The trust has been under court control since 2005 following allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs. Since then, the process has been mired in rancor, litigation and an atmosphere several on Wednesday described as "war" between the FLDS, a court-appointed fiduciary and other factions living in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
"We are just as far apart now as unfortunately we were four years ago," said Lindberg, who earlier this month rejected a proposed settlement that would have returned control of the land trust to Jeffs' followers.
Berry Knoll, a former farm on the outskirts of Colorado City, is the latest object of dispute.
Wednesday's hearing over its fate drew so many lawyers they spilled into the jury box and prompted a five-minute limit on their testimony. Among those represented were the states of Utah and Arizona, the FLDS, the trust, Colorado City and seven people who kicked off some of the initial litigation over the trust.
Court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan wants to sell the northern Arizona land to pay off some of the nearly $3 million in debt - much of it in lawyers' fees - incurred since he took over the trust.
"The trust is in difficult straits," Wisan told Lindberg.
Selling the land would help pay down the trust's debts and boost efforts to provide housing and water for its beneficiaries, Jeff Shields, Wisan's attorney, said of the sale first proposed last fall.
He said an offer has been made to buy 418 acres at Berry Knoll for about $3 million so it can be subdivided and used for home sites. Add in land as part of an option in the deal, and the total price could exceed $5 million.
Church members and city officials opposed the sale, voicing concerns about losing water rights and a piece of land once designated for a new temple.
"Your honor, I think it's a rank injustice," Dan Barlow, Colorado City's former mayor, said during the hearing.
The land was given over to the trust for religious reasons and it's long been considered sacred, said Memory Older, an FLDS member.
"If someone can come in and sell this sacred site, what would we have?" she said.
The town manager for Colorado City said the area is already parched and struggling to supply water to residents. Selling the farm could "decimate the town's water supply" and hinder its ability to grow. An engineer hired by Wisan dismissed that claim, saying development on the farm would be done if water supplies are "properly managed."
The FLDS consider communal living a religious principle and founded the trust in 1942 so those who kept church tenets could share in the collective assets of the community. Worth roughly $114 million, the trust holds most of the homes and land in Hildale, Colorado City and in a church enclave near Bountiful, British Columbia.
Much of Wednesday's hearing focused on how the trust has been managed over the last several years. Several people praised Wisan as being impartial and intent on helping the trust's estimated 6,000 beneficiaries.
Others, including FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop, railed against the trust managers, saying they'd done nothing to help the locals as they struggle to keep their homes, farms and businesses.
The judge stopped short of making a decision from the bench. She expressed interest in opening the property to sealed bids, with the land going to the highest bidder. That way, the church, its followers, the city or anyone else could have a chance at it, she said.
"Let the market decide," she said.
Either way, she said, something had to be done get some money to the trust.
"It is clear the status quo is untenable," she said.
Lindberg did not say when she will make a decision.
Jeffs was arrested in 2006 and convicted in 2007 of two felony counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in a 2001 arranged marriage involving a then-14-year-old follower in Utah. He is in an Arizona jail and faces criminal charges in that state and in Texas related to other alleged underage marriages.
On the Net:
United Effort Plan Trust: www.ueptrust.com
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: www.fldstruth.org