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CUT members having trouble getting out of Glastonbury

Bozeman Chronicle/March 17, 1998
By Scott McMillion

People who bought land in the Church Universal and Triumphant subdivision of Glastonbury could have a hard time getting their money out of it.

For many, doing so will depend on the good will and personal finances of their neighbors and even their neighbors' creditors. This is not an ordinary subdivision.

When the church bought the 4,000 acre subdivision in 1982, it encouraged members to move here and establish a spiritual community in the rolling hills and former rangeland. Many of them came. They built homes and set up trailers. They dug big holes and buried bomb shelters in them. They drilled wells, built roads and put in septic systems. They spent a lot of money on the property, they worked hard, and they did it all without owning the land.

Rather, the church sold them long term leases or ''estates for years,'' meaning the property would eventually revert back to the church. A strange set of covenants required residents to have access to bomb shelters, banned alcohol and rock music and allowed the church, at its own discretion, to buy back the property and force people to move out. All residents had to obtain the personal and specific approval of church leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

Plus, people had to pay numerous other fees to get her approval, residents say.

To be a full fledged member or ''communicant,'' according to former church member and current Glastonbury resident Evelyn Ball, members had to pay 10 percent of their income to the church, buy subscriptions to church publications, buy lots of materials and donate cash.

To be approved to lease land in Glastonbury, she had to promise to donate an extra $1,000 a year for three years toward payments on the church's Royal Teton Ranch.

''These were all things you had to do to buy land at Glastonbury,'' Ball said.

People did it because their religious leaders told them to.

''The angels have sought to cluster you together on the highlands of Glastonbury,'' an Ascended Master called The Nameless One from the Center of the Earth said through Prophet in 1986.

''The entire establishment at the Royal Teton Ranch, including Glastonbury, is the manifestation of holy purpose,'' the Ascended Master Saint Germain said, also through Prophet.

The ''community of Glastonbury'' was meant to be a place of survival in a coming holocaust, church literature said. It was touted as a self sufficient, agrarian, spiritual community. The church sold people trailers, modular homes and building plans.

Now, all of that is in the past. Glastonbury has been opened to the public as part of the church's ''reengineering'' process. Anybody with money can buy there. The old covenants have been tossed out, replaced with standard ones that confine themselves to issues like road repair and weeds. Residents now can buy from the church, for a few hundred dollars, title to the land under their homes, theoretically opening up their options. If they want to sell, their market is no longer confined to the dwindling number of church members here.

But problems remain. They are rooted in the way the church marketed the land to its members.

Glastonbury contains 171 lots of 20 acres or larger and the church still owns nearly half of them. There are about 200 homes there today, most of which were built before the ''shelter cycle'' of 1989 1990. But many of the lots contain several dwellings and more than 30 of them have multiple owners. The church sold them that way in the 1980s. Church leaders said they were trying to save members money. But they also avoided subdivision review by local government.

At that time, subdivisions of 20 acres or larger did not have to be reviewed. But many church members didn't want or couldn't afford 20 acres. So several of them would buy a lot together.

Each owner has an ''undivided interest'' in the lot. However, if a person owns 50 percent of a 20 acre parcel it doesn't mean she owns 10 acres. It means she owns half of the whole thing, undivided. Buyers decided among themselves how to allot the property for houses and other uses.

The arrangement works as long as everybody gets along and stays out of trouble. But when there are six or more owners of one parcel, that arrangement can get complicated, especially when many people are leaving the church, disillusioned and angry.

Park County sued the church and Glastonbury residents in 1991, maintaining they had created illegal subdivisions. The suit was settled in 1992 and the church promised not to sell any more undivided interests to unrelated people.

In order to sever one owner's interests from the interests and liabilities of fellow owners and make a property marketable to the general public, the parcel must go through subdivision review at the county level.

So far, the owners of 34 parcels have started that process but only eight parcels have completed it. Many of the applications are stalled by the owners' lack of time, money or documentation, according to Jackie Collins of the Park County Planning Office.

Getting through the review process is always time consuming and expensive, even when an experienced developer is making the decisions. When there are multiple owners, it gets a lot harder.

Some owners live as far away as Belgium or Australia, Robbins said. Money, signatures and powers of attorney have to be collected. Surveys, water and sewer tests and fire inspections must be paid for. Roads must be brought to county standards.

''It's a big investment to get to the point where they can sell,'' Robbins said. ''A lot of things prevent them from having a smooth operation.''

She said people sometimes come in her office on the verge of tears.

''They're cooperative,'' she said. ''But they're broke. They're frustrated with the process. It's very hard for them.''

There are other potential problems as well. Since the owners hold undivided interests, if somebody files a lien on one property holder it affects everybody in the parcel, Park County Attorney Tara DePuy said.

In that case, ''everybody's property is liened,'' she said. ''Everybody's house is liened.''

For example, on parcel 18 in South Glastonbury there are six owners. For one of them, Paul Haugen, the Internal Revenue Service has filed liens totaling nearly $100,0000.

''You have to remove the liens before you can complete subdivision review,'' DePuy said.

Other complications include the bomb shelters people have spent millions of dollars building and stocking. They would have questionable value on the open market and some of them have multiple owners as well. Also, some dwellings use shared wells, further complicating ownership.

Some Glastonbury residents say they welcome the changes and welcome the prospect of new neighbors and a broader community.

''It's a great day, now that we can own our land free and clear,'' said Phil Hoag.

Others are angry and claim the church deceived them. They are talking about lawsuits and they are trying to get the church to buy them out.

''We wanted to be there for the church and to serve the Masters,'' said Jennifer Kenley, who with her husband Malkolm and four children were one of the first families to build in Glastonbury. They sold a prospering hotel and restaurant in England to come here.

A 1985 church newsletter compared them to the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock ''who were seeking religious freedom.''

Like most Glastonbury residents, the Kenleys had followed the church's advice and bought an ''undivided interest'' in a 20 acre parcel in Glastonbury.

The Kenleys have resigned their church membership and for a time negotiated a buyout with church president Gilbert Cleirbaut. But those negotiations have broken down.

''What the organization has done, and still does, is pillage and plunder the wealth of its members and then discards them,'' Kenley wrote in a January letter to Cleirbaut.

While many Glastonbury residents face hurdles if they try to sell their property, the church itself has an easier route.

Last month it sent to realtors a list of 27 parcels it wants to sell on the open market.

Those parcels, priced from $45,000 to $67,000, are not developed and face none of the subdivision review and potential title problems encumbering the land the church sold its members.

Former board of directors member Sean Prophet said he saw the problems coming years ago.

Glastonbury was never a ''spiritual community,'' he said.

''It was a bunch of people who bought houses. That's all it ever was. It just so happened that it had these restrictive covenants and you had to belong to this church to buy.

''I never thought it should have been that way,'' he added. ''It virtually guaranteed this situation. If there had been landowners other than church members in there it would have been a nice integrated area and it would have been a lot more attractive to people to buy there now.''

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