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Utah Supreme Court ruling clears way for state to sell FLDS property

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 7:34 p.m. MST

An undated photograph of the Berry Knoll area near the Utah-Arizona border that is the subject of a legal dispute between members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church and the court-appointed fiduciary over the United Effort Plan Trust.

FLDS court filings, 3rd District, FLDS court filings, 3rd District

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for the state to break up a polygamous sect's real-estate holdings by selling homes, businesses and farms on the Utah-Arizona border.

Justices rejected an appeal Tuesday from five men trying to block the sale of Berry Knoll Farm, which is owned by the Fundamentalist LDS Church. Justices ruled that the men — church bishops and members or now ex-members — have no standing to challenge the sale because they don't own the farm individually.

The Utah Supreme Court previously ruled the FLDS Church couldn't stop a takeover that aims to sell or redistribute an estimated $100 million in assets held by the church under a charitable trust. The latest ruling takes real estate in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., one step closer to a sale.

Utah seized control of the community trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by church officials, including now-jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs. Church members are allowed to live and work on trust property, but some have lost everything in periodic purges orchestrated by Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage girls he took as brides.

Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed trust manager, told The Associated Press he wasn't ready to submit a plan for the sale of assets to a 3rd District Court judge for approval. Wisan said he planned to sell Berry Knoll Farm years ago to an interested buyer to raise cash for administrative expenses but was blocked by litigation.

He said the farm was undeveloped grazing land in Colorado City. The FLDS Church considers it sacred property.

"I haven't spoken with the buyer for a while," Wisan said Tuesday. "I don't know what I'm going to do with the farm."

The Utah Supreme Court previously ruled the FLDS Church waited too long to try to stop the takeover, and a federal appeals court affirmed that decision in November. The latest ruling clears one of the final legal hurdles to the dissolution of the community trust.

Wisan said he was still waiting for state and federal district judges to release injunctions or stays that blocked a sale of land and property.

Separately on Tuesday, a 5th District Court judge in St. George allowed a former FLDS member to occupy 20 acres of land he originally donated to the church.

Richard Holm is the first exiled FLDS member to reclaim land consecrated to the church. The judge overseeing the state's takeover approved the transfer in 2006, but other church members sued, saying they were making use of the same land for a construction business and a home-school.

"It's great to have this finally come to a conclusion," Holm told The Spectrum of St. George. "Besides the frustration of (litigation), it's been an economic burden. We had a right to the use of the property. The property could and should be rented."

Wisan said he sold the property to Holm 2½ years ago and that local authorities initially refused to give Holm water or electric service.

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