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Foreclosure halted on disputed property

CAMDENTON, Mo. (BP)–A Nov. 6 foreclosure sale on property once owned by the Missouri Baptist Convention was stopped Oct. 31 when an attorney for a Nevada mortgage company entered a “forbearance agreement” with the property’s current owner.

Springfield, Mo., developer Bill Jester reportedly defaulted on payments for 941 undeveloped acres of the original tract of 1,301 acres once owned by the Missouri convention. The remaining 360 developed acres are owned by the Windermere Baptist Conference Center — one of five breakaway entities that bolted from the MBC — which changed its charter to self-perpetuating status in July 2001, broke ties with the convention and claimed title to all 1,301 acres situated on Lake of the Ozarks.

The other four breakaway entities are the Baptist Home retirement center, Word & Way newsjournal, the Baptist Foundation and Missouri Baptist College. Combined assets of all the breakaway entities total about $250 million.

The Windermere board defaulted on a loan of more than $20 million in 2003 and then conveyed 941 acres to its lender by a “deed in lieu of foreclosure,” thus retaining the remaining acreage valued at $14 million. About three years later, in February 2006, Jester acquired the land but apparently failed to find investors willing to help develop property whose ownership was in dispute, and for which the MBC was seeking legal remedy after Windermere officials refused Christian arbitration for about one year.

Jester paid an undisclosed sum of money to the Nevada lender as consideration for the “forbearance agreement.” In exchange for the payments, the lender cancelled the Nov. 6 foreclosure sale date to allow Jester an undisclosed amount of time to refinance the $6.6 million debt.

If Jester does not refinance the loan, the foreclosure process could re-commence, according to the Nevada lender’s attorney.

Michael Whitehead, the MBC’s legal counsel, said he would continue to monitor any lending activity affecting the 941 acres owned by Jester’s development company as well as any activity affecting the 360 core acres retained by the conference center corporation.

“Restitution of the land” is the convention’s petition to Judge Richard Callahan, Whitehead said, referring to a Feb. 1 court date in Cole County, Mo., regarding ownership of the land. Commencing trial is the best way to protect the property and ultimately recover the entire tract of 1,301 acres, debt-free, for the MBC, he said.

Windermere staff published an Oct. 26 press release criticizing The Pathway — MBC’s official newsjournal — as “inaccurate and unethical” when it reported Oct. 19 that the Windermere Development Company had defaulted on mortgage payments due on the 941 acres, which fostered the foreclosure notice printed in the Lake Sun Leader, a newspaper in Camdenton, Mo., Oct. 15.

Dan Bench, Windermere’s executive officer, said The Pathway should have contacted him directly: “I would have talked with them, and I will be happy to answer any questions from anyone at any time.”

“Mr. Bench knows,” Whitehead said, “that communication between litigants about a pending case is legally sensitive, and can only occur if his attorneys approve. We have asked Mr. Bench’s attorneys if they concur with his invitation, and we eagerly await their reply.”

Windermere’s press release complained that The Pathway story confused readers, leading them to believe that the foreclosure was against land owned by the conference center rather than Jester.

Whitehead disagreed.

“The story was clear for any reasonably careful reader. Mr. Jester’s land was in foreclosure, not the conference center’s remaining 360 acres. The fact that Mr. Jester reached a ‘forbearance agreement’ after The Pathway story ran did not make the original Pathway report inaccurate.”

Bench also complained that The Pathway’s story implied that Windermere conference center was having financial difficulties, and not just Jester’s company. Bench said Windermere had its “best year ever.”

“We sincerely hope that the Windermere corporation is operating in the black in 2007,” Whitehead responded. “We will find out when we take Mr. Bench’s deposition on Nov. 19. Meanwhile, we simply cannot use the phrase ‘best year ever’ for the loss of five-sixths of the total acreage that once belonged to the MBC.

“When the MBC family recovers all the land, all 1,301 acres, debt-free, that will be the ‘best year ever,’ and we pray that will be next year,” Whitehead said.
Reported by The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

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