NY Times, April 21, 2006
Property Tax Dispute Threatens Band of Polygamists
By KIRK JOHNSON
HILDALE, Utah, April 19 =97 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 =97 around $1.3
million =97 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
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
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 =97 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
"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
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
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
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
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 =97 "the mothers"=97 agree that
the old days were over and that they had to deal with the likes of Mr.
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.