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Polygamists want questions on faith quashed at water hearing

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A polygamous sect seeking permission to double the amount of water available at a remote South Dakota compound wants to block discussion of its faith during a public hearing this week.

The request for more water comes from Seth Jeffs, brother of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, and members of the United Order of South Dakota, a trust run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS.

Jeffrey Connolly, an attorney for the group, argued in a filing with the South Dakota Water Management Board that information about the group’s faith isn’t relevant to the application the board will consider Thursday morning. He asked that evidence and testimony regarding the group’s religion, details about the trust, allegations that the group “is a ‘secretive organization’ or is engaged in ‘abnormal activity'” and personal details about its members be excluded.

Connolly said in the filing that type of evidence is irrelevant and that opponents of the project are attempting “to use this forum for other purposes.” He declined to comment on Tuesday.

The group’s secrecy and history — Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders have been convicted of sexually assaulting underage girls — have raised concerns about how many people live at the compound and whether the request for more water means more members will be moving there. The sect is headquartered in a community along the Utah-Arizona border.

Linda Van Dyke Kilcoin, who lives near the South Dakota compound, is attempting to have the group’s request for more water dismissed. Several other neighbors also filed petitions to intervene in the group’s water request.

Michael Hickey, an attorney for Kilcoin, said he’s never dealt with such a private group before. “When people decline to give me information, it raises my suspicion, I guess,” he said.

“There’s a lot of people that are just very concerned about that compound down there, its effect and what’s going on,” Hickey said.

The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service recently dropped their opposition after reaching a deal that includes conditions such as water usage metering.

The fenced-in compound, complete with a guard tower, sits on hilly land the group bought about a decade ago. Valued for tax purposes at $5.3 million, it’s secluded by tall pine trees along a public gravel road that cuts through it. Several buildings dot the complex, including seven large residences, a chapel and school, a greenhouse and several farm buildings.

In written answers to questions from Kilcoin’s attorney, Jeffs said he’s unsure how many people are served by the compound’s water supply but that the number is within the limits of wastewater permits. The system has a 126-person capacity. According to a 2014 drinking water report filed with the state, about 75 people live at the ranch.

Jeffs said in the document that he knows of no plans to increase the number of people served by the water system beyond what’s allowed by current wastewater limits.

While Jeffs pleaded guilty in 2006 to harboring his then-fugitive brother, he did not face any sex abuse charges.

The FLDS is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890 and prohibits it today.

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