Judge splits sheriff’s ranch between Palmer County Home

Rodney Faver

A chancery judge’s order issued Monday effectively divides ownership of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Boys and Girls Ranch between Lowndes County and the Palmer Home for Children.

The order settles a legal dispute between the two parties that arose last year when the county asserted that the nonprofit foster family’s lease on the property was void.

The site will be divided into two parts, as ordered by Chancery Judge Rodney Faver, the extent of which will be determined after a legal description has been developed. Ownership of the larger of these two rooms will revert to Lowndes County, although the Palmer household will have access to it for 30 days “…for the purpose of removing any personal property or equipment.”

This property will be “fully released from the terms of the 1977 lease”, Faver ordered.

Faver also ordered the two parties to draw up a new lease agreement for the rest of the site, but he included some guidelines. The Palmer Home will pay $1 per acre per year for the amount of land it sits on and, within 12 months of approval of the new lease, must “commence operations for the benefit of children” on the site.

The Palmer Home is free to partner with other organizations to provide these services, but Faver ordered that the site “…be used as a residential setting for disadvantaged, abused or neglected children or children in similar situations “.

Once those operations begin, if Palmer Home stops actively using the site for 60 days, it will revert to the county, Faver ordered.

The main term of the lease will be 25 years, Faver ordered. If Palmer Home fails to comply with the terms of the lease, the lease “…shall be absolutely null and void.”

The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors sued Palmer Home, a residential facility for foster children, over the 99-year lease of the property, which covers approximately 320 acres off Motley Road. Beginning in 1977, the Mississippi Boys and Girls Ranch paid $1 a year to operate there.

The Palmer Home took it over in 2005 but hasn’t held children’s programming there since 2019 — the same year the organization moved its main operations from a Columbus campus to Hernando.

The county argued that Palmer Home lost the lease when the site ceased to be used for children, which was a key requirement of the original agreement. He also argued that the property had fallen into disrepair while under Palmer Home’s watch.

Under the new order, Palmer Home will also be required to “…place the property in the same or better condition in which Palmer Home received it” and maintain the site in “good and leaseable condition.” .

Palmer Home’s Board of Supervisors and Board of Directors were given 21 days to approve the judge’s temporary order.

Drake Bassett, president and CEO of Palmer Home, was cautious, but optimistic, in his comments to The Dispatch on Tuesday afternoon.

Drake Bassette

“We are working on a resolution that will be mutually beneficial for the county, as well as Palmer Home,” he said. “The finalized details have yet to be worked out, but there is a greater level of collaboration.”

Bassett said he believed the issue would be resolved “within the next few weeks.”

He would not comment on what Palmer Home planned to do with the site.

“We had to put some things aside, and we’ll have to restart those plans and those conversations,” he said.

He also wouldn’t comment on the size of the land Palmer Home will eventually lease.

“I’ll leave it at that for now until I have confirmation from the county and the judge,” he said. “Right now, we don’t really know.”

Hairston Travel

Supervisory board chairman Trip Hairston declined to comment because he sits on both the board of supervisors and the Palmer Home’s board of directors.

“I was out of the loop,” he said. “When this issue arises in either place, I have to recuse myself and physically leave the room.”

Hairston referred The Dispatch to County Attorney Tim Hudson, who did not return a call until press time.

Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.

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