As former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof contemplates a run for Oregon governor, he, his wife and his mother are in the middle of a legal battle with their neighbors in Yamhill County. The Kristofs are fighting over their right to a historical easement that connects their newly acquired 115-acre property through their neighbor’s land to a nearby highway.
For more than six months, creating 507 pages of court documents, the two parties have been fighting in court over the easement — the right to pass through someone else’s private property. The question is whether the easement agreement between previous property owners applies to current owners.
Shortly after Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, published Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, which reads in retrospect like a political manifesto for Kristof’s gubernatorial platform, the family put in a bid for 115 acres of land in Yamhill County. They wanted a vineyard next door to their family farm, according to court documents. It’s a property that Kristof says in an email to his real estate agent that he used to hike as a youngster in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Tightrope looks at his hometown of Yamhill and how it went from a place that once supported blue-collar jobs but whose residents now live in poverty, resulting in substance abuse and suicide.
A farm and vineyard complex was referenced in Tightrope when WuDunn and Kristof write in the Appendix “10 ways to make your community better.” The 10th item mentions the Kristof pinot noir grape vineyard and cider apple orchard. That property referenced in the book is the original Kristof family farm, a 20-acre property that was recently turned into an orchard and vineyard.
On Oct. 14, Kristof resigned his columnist post at the New York Times. During his tenure, he won a Pulitzer Prize, twice. In a statement to the Times, he said he “may be an idiot to leave. But you all know how much I love Oregon, and how much I’ve been seared by the suffering of old friends there. So I’ve reluctantly concluded that I should try not only to expose problems but also see if I can fix them directly.”
Kristof; his mother, Jane Kristof; and WuDunn purchased the 115-acre previously logged property from the Freres Timber company in May 2020 for nearly $1 million in cash, according to court documents.
Less than a year after purchasing the property, the battle over the easement connecting their estate to the Tualatin Valley State Highway (also known as Highway 47) began.
On March 29, Kristof, WuDunn and his mother filed a complaint in court against their neighbor in Yamhill County. In the complaint, they say that in late 2020 their neighbors — husband and wife Matthew Mealey and Rebecca Bowman-Mealey — blocked the easement. This access road was used by previous property owners since 1959, according to the Kristof complaint. And they cite previous property deeds as proof the easement was shared between the two property owners.
The neighbors, the Kristofs allege, planted trees, erected a fence and placed some boulders in the area. The Mealeys purchased their property on Aug. 3, 2020.
Kristof’s lawyer Michael Martinis issued a comment to Eugene Weekly, saying he advises clients to not speak with members of the media about pending litigation.
“The Kristofs want to keep open an easement/road which, since 1959, provides access to property they recently purchased to combine with their family farm,” Martinis says in an email statement. “It is important for the Kristofs to have this access for fire control safety and property management. Based on the historic facts and applicable easement law, the Kristofs are confident they can prove their case.”
On Oct. 27, the day Kristof announced he was running for governor, the Mealeys’ lawyer Thomas Larkin emailed EW with a statement. Larkin said he doesn’t usually comment on pending litigation but wanted to respond to the Kristofs’ lawyer.
Larkin said the Kristofs initially argued they had a reciprocal easement with their neighbors, where the two parties share a common road. But the Kristofs have shifted their position. “Under the new position, the Kristofs focus on a different and similarly invalid argument, while needlessly escalating the rhetoric to distract from those baseless theories,” Larkin said.
The Kristofs, Larkin said, are dissatisfied with the nature and extent of their highway access road when they bought the 115 acres in 2020. “However, the Kristofs are dissatisfied with the nature and extent of that nature and are attempting to gain use of property they do not own or have rights to,” he added.
In July, the Mealeys sent a motion for summary judgment to ask the court to throw out the case, saying Kristof had the facts wrong. They say that they offered the Kristofs alternative easements but those were refused.
Martinis says the Mealeys never offered the Kristofs a reasonable easement/road. He adds there is a path that the Mealeys want the Kristofs to use, but it has a steep topography and isn’t passable.
The easement that the Kristofs are trying to access was used by the Freres Timber company, according to emails between Kristof and his real estate agent shared in the court documents. His real estate agent told him that the property had its own 16-foot wide road that connected to Highway 47. However, the timber company and the Mealeys previously had a verbal agreement where Freres made some improvements to the developed road in return for using it.
After being denied by the Oregon Department of Transportation to develop a 16-foot wide road that connects to Tualatin State Highway, Kristof then began sending emails and formal letters, requesting that the Mealeys allow them to access the easement, according to the defendants’ July motion for summary judgment. The Mealeys say they offered alternative easement options but refused to let the Kristofs use the easement they wanted.
The defendants deny in court documents that there has been any historical evidence that entitles the Kristofs to the easement. They have said in court documents that the Kristofs are pushing false assertions and defamation. Defendants refer to an Aug. 10 court document in which the Kristofs say the defendants have “conjured a hobgoblin” from previous easement agreements.
According to the Kristofs’ March 29 complaint, they want their neighbors to remove the trees, fence and boulders that are blocking their access to the easement, as well as establish that they have access to it. The court case is still ongoing and the next scheduled hearing is Nov. 30.
This article has been updated with a statement from the Mealeys’ lawyer.