May 25, 2008 in City
Homestead north of Spokane sparks legal battle
The fate of roughly 1,100 acres of scenic countryside near the Spokane Country Club is at the center of a legal dispute among the siblings of a prominent Spokane family.
As trustees for the estate of Charlotte S. Witherspoon, three of her sons want to prepare the family’s historic farm – encompassing bluffs overlooking the Little Spokane River and Rattlesnake Hill – for subdivision and possible development into as many as 110 homesites. But developing Glen Tana farm also would require approval by two other sibling trustees who don’t think that’s the best current course for the storied property.
In an attempt to settle that and other disagreements, attorney Peter Witherspoon and sister Tannis Witherspoon served the brothers with a notice of mediation under state law. William Witherspoon Jr., Grant Witherspoon and Jim Witherspoon, however, have asked Spokane County Superior Court to remove the two siblings as trustees – accusing them of breaching their fiduciary duty and of conflicts of interest – a move that would give the brothers power to proceed with dividing the property among the five siblings.
Construction on Glen Tana would change the landscape of an area abutting a state-owned natural area popular with hikers and boaters, who use a canoe launch site on trust land leased by the state. It partly lies in the Little Spokane River Valley, where conservation groups have worked to preserve wildlife habitat and the rural atmosphere.
The three brothers contend that delays in preparation for development are lessening the value of the property for themselves and their children, pointing to rezoning a few years ago that reduced the number of homes that could be built there.
“It’s really being zoned into what I would call inutility,” said William Witherspoon. “And over time, it’s losing value.”
Peter Witherspoon denied the allegations, saying he’s acted in the best interest of the trust. Located just outside city limits, the property remains desirable, he said.
“In my belief, the value of that property has increased and will continue to increase,” he said.
The three brothers argue there’s too much ill will for mediation to succeed.
“What you’re talking about is a family ripping each other apart,” said William Witherspoon, 65, an attorney who lives in New Jersey.
Bob Dunn, attorney for the three brothers, called the farm a “prize piece of property that’s going to make a spectacular development.”
“It’s probably one of the coolest pieces of dirt left to be developed,” Dunn said. “It’s got views that knock your socks off.”
Glen Tana stretches from south of the Little Spokane River near St. George’s School and the state-owned Little Spokane River Natural Area past West Rutter Parkway, reaching as far north as West Stearns Road. It spans east from Dorset Road, encompassing a large meadow, and Rattlesnake Hill north of the country club.
The land includes several historic barns and the traditional family home, which Jim Witherspoon and Grant Witherspoon have occupied at times. Peter Witherspoon and retired paralegal Tannis Witherspoon, 59, live in homes they’ve built on the property.
Sixty-three-year-old Grant Witherspoon, a former contractor and landlord, splits his time between Walla Walla and the homestead. Jim Witherspoon, 61, is retired after working in construction.
Glen Tana has been in the family since the 1890s, when it was established by the siblings’ maternal great-grandfather and prominent Spokane pioneer Thomas S. Griffith. The farm once spread over 2,380 acres on which the Griffiths ran a dairy farm and dog-breeding operation. Griffith’s wife, Charlotte B. Griffith, and their only daughter, Tannis Griffith Semple, even tried their hands at a tea room for visitors.
Portions of the estate, including the sites of St. George’s and the Spokane Fish Hatchery, were sold to help keep the family afloat, said Peter Witherspoon, 56
Ownership of the farm fell to Tannis Semple, then to her daughter, Charlotte Witherspoon.
“Both of them were land rich and cash poor, and they struggled to keep this property in the family,” Peter Witherspoon said.
Tannis Witherspoon still hosts herding trials on the property.
Archibald W. Witherspoon, the siblings’ paternal grandfather, co-founded the well-known Spokane law firm Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport and Toole PS, which represents The Spokesman-Review.
Tannis Semple left the farm to her grandchildren, naming Charlotte Witherspoon as executor. To take advantage of tax laws, the siblings operated the farm until the mid-1990s, when they ceased active farming. They had spent weekends together on the property yearly repairing fences and doing other work.
Charlotte Witherspoon signed the irrevocable trust at issue in 1983 after learning she had terminal cancer; she died the next summer. It stipulated that a majority of the siblings could make decisions for using trust assets, except unanimous consent would be needed to sell or dispose of parts of Glen Tana.
Over the years, the siblings’ views on the trust diverged.
Three brothers have commissioned plans for developing the property and accuse their siblings of hindering them in favor of creating a “private reserve” or eventually dedicating the land for public use.
“Over the years, Peter and Tannis Witherspoon treated the land, the principal asset of the Trust, as their own private property,” William Witherspoon said in a court statement. “At every step along the way, they have opposed efforts by the other family trustees to take steps to increase the value of the Trust’s assets. This approach, on their part, gives rise to my belief that they have also breached their duties as prudent investors.”
Peter Witherspoon accuses the brothers of wanting to “break” the trust, against their mother’s wishes. He contends Charlotte Witherspoon intended to keep the land intact while the siblings are alive and for it to benefit her grandchildren. He previously told the brothers that if the land were to be sold, he would favor a conservation organization purchasing it, if it could be obtained for “fair market value,” he said.
“I don’t really have a present vision for it because until such time as all the trustees are able to reach an agreement to sell or liquidate the property, that’s really not an issue at this point,” Peter Witherspoon said.
A proposed plan for the property, developed by Taylor Engineering and paid for by the trust, shows one group of homes lining the ridge along the river, with another along the south edge of Rattlesnake Hill. Because the property is zoned Rural Conservation, the county typically would permit only one home per 20 acres, but “cluster development,” or grouping structures to increase open space, allows one per 10.
Peter Witherspoon said the plan indicates installing roads and water systems would cost more than $6 million. The trust has investments of about $400,000, he said. The siblings could borrow money needed to develop or simply sell property to a developer, William Witherspoon said.
A potential deal to secure water rights needed for development fell through. It’s unclear whether all those lots could be developed without water rights, William Witherspoon said.
William Witherspoon said he’d like to see the family go through the platting process at least to the point where it could be divided five ways based on value, and each sibling could do as he or she wanted.
“This is not a rush to develop the property or to get rich on the part of the primary beneficiaries,” William Witherspoon said. “This is more, at least in my opinion, trying to prevent an ultimate mess or a great disadvantage for my children.”
Peter Witherspoon argued the values of those shares would be “disparate” when the family is ready to sell.
He is a board member of the Inland Northwest Land Trust, a nonprofit that helps landowners enact and enforce conservation easements on their properties to prevent development and to receive tax benefits. Executive Director Chris DeForest said he could not discuss conversations with landowners, including the Witherspoons.
“We’ve looked up and down the Little Spokane River, just because it is such a hotbed of conservation issues, but not in that particular area,” DeForest said.
One organization that could buy property at market value is Spokane County Conservation Futures, a government program that uses property taxes to buy and maintain property. Glen Tana could compete “strongly” with other nominations, but the next nomination period probably won’t be until next year, said John Bottelli, county parks special projects manager.
The siblings also quarrel over how they should be allowed to build individual homes on the site, the use of trust assets and whether certain siblings’ plans would inhibit cluster development.
“The trust instrument provides that any of my generation has a right to build a residence on the property if they wish to do so, and no one has been precluded from doing that,” Peter Witherspoon said.
The case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Ellen Kalama Clark, but a hearing date has not been set. Neither side is sure how long it will take to resolve.