Judge orders Whitley property deeded to North Central Missouri College

(Columbia Daily Tribune) – A lingering legal deadlock over the fate of an undeveloped 102-acre tract of land near the Pinnacles area north of Columbia was resolved Wednesday in favor of North Central Missouri College, the beneficiary of a donation from the late Jim and Joanna Whitley.

The consent judgment signed by Associate Circuit Judge Deborah Daniels requires a series of restrictive covenants on the property but not the restrictions that would have been imposed by a conservation easement that had been the central focus of the legal tussle. Daniels vacated the recorded conservation easement that called for monitoring and enforcement by the Greenbelt Land Trust, which insisted on deed language the college did not agree to.

You may read the Whitley Consent Judgement here.

A group of Whitley friends and Greenbelt officials insisted that the conservation easement was the best way to ensure compliance with the Whitleys’ desire to keep the property from being developed and wrote letters that claimed college officials had “dishonored” the Whitleys’ legacy by insisting on a deed that wasn’t burdened by a conservation easement.

Stephen Jeffrey, attorney for Whitley estate trustee Pam Haverland, said the agreement Daniels signed was crafted through several weeks of negotiation.

“The restrictions are totally consistent with and actually somewhat broader than the restrictions that were called for” in a deed recorded last January by Columbia attorney Skip Walther on behalf of North Central Missouri College, Jeffrey said. Jeffrey cited clauses that prohibit construction and habitat destruction as keys to maintaining the property “in its natural state,” as specified in the Whitley trust.

“We believe this consent judgment accomplishes that,” Jeffrey said. “Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to come to terms with the Greenbelt people.”

Walther, who is a candidate for Columbia mayor on the April 5 ballot, agreed the restrictive covenants “will serve to preserve the natural condition of the property in perpetuity.”

“My client is excited to have this chapter finally behind us, and it intends to fully honor the wishes of the Whitleys with respect to the use and preservation of the real estate,” Walther said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

Jim Whitley, a renowned water quality researcher and assistant division chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation, died in 2009. He was a graduate of Trenton Junior College, now North Central Missouri College. Joanna Whitley died in 2010. The couple’s estate contributed about $450,000 to the college in addition to the tract of rugged, forested land near the Pinnacles. The couple had been in conversations with Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri about placing a conservation easement on the property a year before their deaths, Greenbelt attorney Mike Powell said.

Jeffrey said the college will deed the property back to Haverland and she will record the series of deed restrictions on the property, then deed the property back to the college.

“It’s basically restoring the status quo where things should have been a few years ago before all the confusion happened,” Jeffrey said.

The court case was the second filed by the college to finalize the land deal. The first, which was filed last January after nearly five years of discussion failed to resolve use restriction issues, was dismissed by agreement when the easement in dispute was being negotiated. In September, Walther again filed suit asking the court to issue a judgment that the college owned the land and to impose a deed restriction instead of a conservation easement.

Walther said the issue with Greenbelt’s involvement was not so much the restrictions on the land as it was the additional language that Greenbelt wanted that would have required the college to pay Greenbelt’s attorney’s fees and for Greenbelt to receive any future condemnation proceeds, instead of the college.

“In my opinion, the trustee lacked the legal authority to benefit Greenbelt because the college was the beneficiary,” Walther said. “Greenbelt is now out of the picture.”

Powell said in a statement that Greenbelt will drop the matter.

“Rather than subject Jim and Joanna’s legacy to more years of anguish, we have withdrawn from negotiations,” Powell said. “We regret that this matter has diverged from what we understood Jim and Joanna’s intentions to be.”