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City rescue of Whitmore Mansion 'a long shot'
Though it's a long shot, city officials plan to make a real estate offer to save the historic Clinton Whitmore Mansion from foreclosure.

The privately owned 1903 mansion, considered the gem of downtown, has struggled to keep up with mortgage payments. The slow economy has impacted income from rentals for weddings and private functions and the mansion is now in foreclosure by Bank of America.

Cary Pope, who owns the mansion with wife Nancy, approached the Ceres City Council this spring to ask for financial assistance. Pope originally asked the city to buy an undeveloped portion of the mansion property for a future park site but was waiting to see if a private investor would be willing to invest first. Because that individual decided against participating, said Art deWerk, acting Ceres city manager, Pope came back to the council for a May 29 council Study Session.

"If the loans are not squared away, then the bank may sell it at auction," said deWerk.

The council directed City Attorney Mike Lyions to work with a real estate agent to offer BofA $375,000 in an effort to keep the house from being sold at auction on the courthouse steps on July 17.

The Popes paid $1.3 million for the mansion property in 2005. City officials said the Popes have an unpaid balance of $850,000 on the BofA mortgage and there is a second and third loan of $350,000 and $75,000 respectively.

The council collectively felt $375,000 was an "appropriate offer given the decline in property values," said Lyions.

"Yes, it is a long shot," admitted City Attorney Mike Lyions. "So many things would have to happen."

First, BofA would have to accept the short sale offer of $375,000 despite it being owed $475,000 more on the mortgage. Secondly, the junior lien holders who hold the second and third would have to agree to terms set by BofA.

"A bank might say we agree to the short sale and give holders of the second and third a pittance to make them go away," said Lyions.

The bank would also have to agree to postpone the sale until the city can free up $375,000 in park acquisition funds. Lyions noted that in order to use park funds on a Whitmore Home acquisition, the city must rezone the property and change the general plan designation to park use.

"The council would prefer to see the entire property develop as a park and once a part of the city's official park system, if you will, the city at that time would have ability to access park funds for the acquisition of the property," said Lyions.

Councilman Eric Ingwerson, also a real estate agent, supports the effort to keep the mansion in safe hands but he's skeptical BofA will accept a short sale based on the city's offer. A 2011 appraisal pegged the property's value at $486,000, he said.

"The likelihood that BofA would accept ... I'm skeptical," said Ingwerson. "I don't know if they'll even take $400,000. Put yourself in their shoes."

According to Ingwerson, the city is probably not interested in operating the mansion as a venue due to the operations and maintenance costs and would be interested in selling the mansion to the non-profit Whitmore Mansion Foundation while developing the lot to the south for a park.

"It's worth trying to save," said Ingwerson. "I think it's worth preserving and if we can develop the surrounding area as a park, it maintains or keeps the historic value of the home a lot."

Mayor Chris Vierra cringes to think the community could lose access to a showcase venue.

"It's a tremendous asset that we do not want to fall into disrepair," said Vierra.

The house would likely never be razed for other uses such as apartments since the city has applied an historical preservation designation overlay on the property. Vierra wants to see an expedited process to obtain a spot for the home on the National Register of Historic Places to prevent it from ever being removed.

Ingwerson said it could take months to see if BofA will approve the offer in a short sale.

The 8,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1903 by Clinton Whitmore, the son of town founder Daniel Whitmore. Clinton Whitmore was involved in the formation of the Turlock Irrigation District. The three-story mansion remained in the Whitmore family until Robert and Edna Whitmore sold it in 2005 to the Popes. The mansion was neglected for decades until the Popes bought it. It received an extreme makeover for the 2007 Community Hospice Interior Design Showcase.

In 2009 the non-profit Whitmore Mansion Foundation was formed to oversee its operation.

Tuolumne River Lodge

Also during the May 29 Study Session, the council spent time discussing a request by the Tuolumne River Lodge for financial assistance to get it out of a high interest loan with a balloon payment due in 2017.

The lodge's board of directors sought $138,000 in loan assistance. However, the council and city attorney could not find a legal basis to use city funds on a private facility located outside of the city limits.

During its regular meeting the council also:

• Recognized the hard work of the 2012 Ceres Street Faire Committee.

• Declared June as "Disability Awareness Month" in Ceres.

• Approved a lot line adjustment for Longs Drugs and Neal and Lu Anna Wehrman for properties at 2075 Hatch Road and 1409 Central Avenue.

• Authorized the city to enter into a payment agreement with Turlock Irrigation District for reimbursement of costs advanced for the first Regional Surface Water Project agreement and amending the budget in the amount of $503,371 to appropriate funds for the first payment.

• Approved a three-year agreement with Ontel Security Services to provide private security for the American Legion Hall, Community Center, Ceres River Bluff Regional Park and Smyrna Park.

• Set a June 11 public hearing on proposed rate increases for garbage collection as a pass-through for the Stanislaus Waste-to-Energy Facility tipping fee increase.