PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A secretive polygamist group will have to provide South Dakota regulators with more information before they will decide whether to allow the sect to draw water more quickly at a compound in the Black Hills.
The South Dakota Water Management Board voted Thursday that the group needs to come back with more details after Seth Jeffs, the brother of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs, didn’t provide clear answers to questions about the group and its compound.
Seth 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, has asked to double the rate of water it can draw on the compound.
The group says the water is for houses, gardens and orchards at its 140-acre property, but nearby landowners are concerned the request means an influx of members is looming.
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 for assaulting two of his child brides, and other leaders have been convicted of similar crimes.
A lawyer for the sect had asked that evidence about its faith, information about the trust and personal details of members be barred from the water hearing, saying those issues weren’t relevant to the water application.
Although the board disagreed, Seth Jeffs seemed reluctant to answer questions, drawing the board’s ire and skepticism.
Jeffs repeatedly said he doesn’t how many people live at the compound, though he spends almost all of his time there. He said he would need the authorization of the trust’s leaders to conduct a census at the compound and that he doesn’t “walk into people’s houses and intrude on their privacy.”
Board member Rodney Freeman, who supported the water application, told him, “I don’t want anybody to think for a minute that I believe your testimony that you don’t know how many people are up there, or at least a good ballpark estimate.”
Jeffs’ attorney Jeffrey Connolly argued that municipalities or rural water organizations wouldn’t have to disclose the exact number of people using their water.
“We’ll just take it as it comes,” Jeffs said, shaking his head when a reporter asked if he knew who would come with him to answer the board’s remaining questions.
The group’s fenced-in compound, complete with a guard tower, sits on hilly, rugged land it bought about a decade ago. Several buildings dot the complex, including seven large residences, a chapel and school, greenhouse, and farm buildings.
A state Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff recommendation said the water application should be approve.
Jeffs said in a document filed ahead of Thursday’s hearing that the number of people at the compound is within the limits of wastewater permits. The system has a 126-person capacity.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has researched the FLDS, has said Jeffs is considered royalty among devout members.
But Jeffs said he doesn’t know much about the leadership, or even where his brother Isaac Jeffs, a trustee, lives.
Michael Hickey, an attorney for nearby landowner Linda Van Dyke Kilcoin, who opposes the water application, said Jeffs is a felon and that granting the request wasn’t in the public interest. Jeffs pleaded guilty in 2006 to harboring Warren Jeffs as a fugitive.
“You’ve got a convicted felon over there who takes orders from the prophet, and if you think that if the prophet says something and tells you to do something different than South Dakota law, that he’s going to follow South Dakota law? He’s not,” Hickey said.