ST. GEORGE An Arizona judge has ruled the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may not evict an excommunicated man and his family from a house built on church property in Colorado City, Ariz.
"This decision could cause some repercussions for us, I guess," said Ross Chatwin, 35, who was stripped of his FLDS membership in November and served eviction papers in January. "I don't think people here understand what a big win this is for us."
Mohave County Superior Court Judge James Chavez agreed with Chatwin and his attorney that the FLDS Church would be unjustly enriched if Chatwin and his family were evicted from a house on Willow Street.
FLDS attorney Rod Parker said he plans to appeal the decision.
"While I respect and accept the decision of Judge Chavez, I disagree with it in the strongest possible terms," Parker said. "It contains no legal analysis which would justify the result, and the result is contrary to law. The mere fact that Mr. Chatwin made a decision, with his eyes open, which he now regrets is not reason to deprive the lawful owner of control over its property for the next 50 years."
The FLDS Church, through its United Effort Plan (UEP), owns most of the property in Colorado City and across the state line in Hildale, Utah. Faithful FLDS men are assigned a lot or home on UEP land by church leadership. All residents on UEP land are considered tenets at will. Evictions normally follow excommunications, which have taken place more frequently under FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
The Willow Street property, said Parker, was part of a large parcel donated in 1942 to the church by former FLDS leader LeRoy S. Johnson.
That particular piece of property, Parker added, was deeded to the FLDS Church for the sole purpose of establishing the UEP, a charitable, religious trust.
"Why isn't the interest of the people who consecrated the property given any consideration?" said Parker. "Mr. Chatwin, in the entire time since he has lived on UEP property, has paid a total of $100 in property taxes. Last year, the property tax bill on the Willow house was just over $1,000, and Ross paid $100 of it."
While Chatwin did not construct the home on Willow Street, he did build a smaller home with a large, attached shop on another plot of FLDS land nearby. Chatwin, his wife, Lori, and their children moved to the basement of the Willow Street house three years ago after church leaders said the smaller house was unfit to live in.
Chatwin testified during the trial portion of the case that he probably put $130,000 of materials and labor into the home he built on Uzona Street. FLDS members usually purchase needed materials as they can afford them, and other church members donate their labor each Saturday to work on homes and various projects around the community.
Improvements made to the upstairs portion of the Willow house were recently made by Chatwin's brother Steven, who has moved in with his family. FLDS members also helped build and finish the Willow Street house, as they did with Chatwin's first home.
"The court finds it unjust to require Mr. Chatwin to forfeit his substantial investment of time and money under the circumstances of this case," wrote Chavez in his decision filed Thursday. "The harder question is whether Mr. Chatwin should retain possession of the property until paid restitution by the church."
Chatwin said his attorney, Joan Dudley from Community Legal Aid in Kingman, Ariz., plans to discuss the issue of restitution with Chavez on Monday.
"I'm excited. Everything looks good," Chatwin said Friday.
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