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La Verkin fretting over ‘kook’ image

Like council, town appears divided on U.N. ordinance

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LA VERKIN, Washington County — This could be almost any small town in Utah.

Generations later, descendants of the pioneers who settled the area nearly a century ago still live here, hold public office and own businesses.

Many, although perhaps no longer most, residents are related to each other through common ancestors among those first settlers. Neighbors have often known each other's families for decades.

An older-style former church meetinghouse now serves as City Hall. Recently, the biggest local news was the opening of a new supermarket in this town of 3,392 about 20 miles northeast of St. George.

For years La Verkin's main claims to fame were its fruit stands and the fact that to get from 1-15 to the main entrance of Zion National Park, travelers had no choice but to drive through town and turn at the single traffic light.

Certainly this quiet southwestern Utah town has resided far from the limelight — or at least it did until earlier this month.

During a meeting symbolically held on the July 4th holiday, the La Verkin City Council passed an ordinance declaring the town a United Nations-Free Zone. Violators of the new ordinance can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.

Since that meeting, the council's action has generated more calls, letters, e-mails, faxes, balloon bouquets and visits from reporters, camera crews, folks from neighboring towns and the just plain curious than anything else anyone around here can remember.

La Verkin has been the subject of media attention before. Back in the early 1990s a small band of white supremacists moved in and boasted of a planned armed invasion of the national park to seize it as an Aryan homeland. Nothing ever happened, and the racist group eventually left town.

That event, the new anti-U.N. ordinance and recent unrelated but controversial actions by city councils in the nearby towns of Virgin — which now requires residents to own guns — and Washington — where council members passed a resolution calling for repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — have some La Verkin residents worried about the outside world's perception of their town. (See related story on A1.)

It's the use by outsiders of words like "crazies," "kooks," and "weirdos" that La Verkin's leaders and residents find most distasteful and harmful to their city's reputation. Some say one man's love of country might be another man's extremism.

"This is a quiet, peaceful town, a place where you can walk your dog at night," said Doug Wilson, La Verkin city manager and a former mayor. "But there's an extremely large amount of patriotism here, and it's absolutely true patriotism."

Ordinance or resolution

The U.N. ordinance passed by only a 3-2 margin, and La Verkin residents appear to be just as divided on the issue as the vote might indicate. It has brought the kind of attention longtime La Verkin resident Edna Gubler says the town doesn't need.

"I'm not in favor of it (the ordinance). I don't know why they're doing this," said Gubler, a former teacher who still lives in a home her father-in-law, Henry Gubler, built during World War II. "I think the mayor is A-No. 1 and those councilmen are smart, but I don't know why they put this up."

Edna Gubler, whose in-laws helped settle La Verkin, hopes to attend a Wednesday council meeting where the panel may modify its anti-U.N. ordinance or revoke it in favor of a resolution that includes similar language but lacks the force of law. To prepare for that meeting, Gubler has been reading about the United Nations in her set of encyclopedias.

Kris Gubler, La Verkin's mailman, grew up here and feels lucky to stay and make a living in his hometown.

"From '75 on, La Verkin really changed. If it hadn't changed I wouldn't be working here," Gubler said during a break between his morning mail runs and another afternoon job. "But it's still a good place to raise a family. People here are friendly and down to earth."

Most of the folks he meets during his deliveries don't seem to understand the city's latest ordinance or why the council is taking on the U.N., he said.

Councilman Daren Cottam, whose term expires in January, says he voted in favor of the ordinance to get people talking about an important issue.

"If the media's interest was focused on the U.N. and what they're trying to do, then (the attention on the town) is worth it," Cottam said. "But if the media thinks we're kooks, it's not a good thing for La Verkin."

Cottam said he may be the swing vote if the council considers repealing the ordinance in favor of a resolution. Kelly Wilson, a council member who voted against the ordinance, would likely support a resolution, Cottam said.

But Councilman Victor Iverson doesn't feel the ordinance needs changing.

"We're trying to increase the dialogue about some very radical ideas the U.N. is promoting," Iverson said. "I think you can criticize the vehicle (the ordinance), but I don't think we plan on taking any action on the ordinance itself."

A town in transition

Regardless of how the issue is resolved, everyone seems to agree that their town will continue to evolve further from its pioneer history. In the past 10 years, La Verkin's population has grown from 1,740 to nearly 3,400 residents. Along with that growth came the inevitable residential development and loss of the city's once-fertile fruit orchards.

"The town is growing fast enough that none of us know all of us anymore," said Councilman Gary McKell, a 25-year resident and the other council member who voted against the ordinance.

Economic development, while a part of the city's master plan, isn't perceived as a priority. Finding the money to build ball fields or a skate park for the kids hold more immediate urgency. Plans to create Confluence Park, where Ash Creek and La Verkin Creek meet, are under way. The recent completion of a $1.5 million road project and a $1 million water project are this year's highlights, Wilson said.

Prime real estate above the La Verkin Twist along U-9, between La Verkin and Virgin, will be developed over the coming years for housing that could bring another 1,500 residents.

But those living here now feel La Verkin will maintain its small-town feel and values despite the growth.

"There are a lot of descendants from original settlers still here in town," said Kris Gubler. "Some went out into the world, but they came back. They found out there's nothing better than La Verkin."


E-mail: nperkins@redrock.net