PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota regulators approved a secretive polygamist group's request to draw water more quickly at its remote Black Hills compound even though the sect declined to provide many details about the number of people living there.
The state Water Management Board on Wednesday approved the application, which faced opposition from nearby landowners. The same panel had said in July the sect needed to provide more details after Seth Jeffs, water operator for the United Order of South Dakota and the brother of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, didn't provide clear answers to questions about the sect and its compound.
Seth Jeffs didn't attend the hearing on Wednesday. Attorney Jeffrey Connolly told regulators that his clients "decline, frankly" to offer more evidence because it "is not necessary to meet the legal burden" to access the water.
Board members who voted in favor of approving the application said that despite the lack of candor, the group met the legal burden to access the water. Member Rodney Freeman, who "reluctantly" supported approving the water application, said Jeffs previously offered "evasive testimony" and said Jeffs' failure to appear before the committee Wednesday offended him.
"My sense of being offended doesn't amount to a hill of beans when I look at the law," Freeman said.
A state Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff recommendation also said the water application should be approved.
Michael Hickey, an attorney for nearby landowner Linda Van Dyke Kilcoin, who opposed the application, said he's "disappointed" because at the July meeting he got the impression that if Jeffs didn't appear, the application would be denied.
Connolly declined to comment after the hearing. Jeffs didn't immediately respond to a telephone message requesting comment.
Jeffs and members of the United Order of South Dakota, a religious trust run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, asked to roughly double the rate of water it can draw at the compound to 200 gallons per minute from 95 gallons.
The group says the water is for houses, gardens and orchards at its 140-acre property and that the additional capacity would mostly be used in the spring and summer months, but nearby landowners are concerned the request means an influx of members is looming. The application includes adding an additional well at the property.
The FLDS is headquartered in a community along the Arizona-Utah border. Members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Warren Jeffs, considered by the group to be a prophet who speaks for God, is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for assaulting two of his child brides, and other leaders have been convicted of similar crimes.
Seth Jeffs pleaded guilty in 2006 to harboring Warren Jeffs as a fugitive.
The group's fenced-in South Dakota compound, complete with a guard tower, sits on hilly, rugged land it bought about a decade ago. Several buildings dot the complex, including residences, a chapel and school, greenhouse, and farm buildings. The compound was quiet Monday afternoon. The guard tower appeared empty, and a nearby gate swung open in the wind.
At the July board meeting, Seth Jeffs repeatedly said that he doesn't know how many people live at the compound, though he spent almost all of his time there. He said then that he would need the authorization of the trust's leaders to conduct a census at the compound.
Jeffs said in a document filed ahead of the July hearing that the number of people at the compound is within the limits of wastewater permits. The system has a 126-person capacity.