“I only like happy endings, and fortunately we have a happy ending here,” said trustee Warren Wiegand at last Wednesday’s hastily convened special meeting of the Gardiner Town Board. “I’d like to call it a great movie…complete with twists in the plot, a great supporting cast…a happy ending…and even sort of an Oscar at the end!”
Unusually for a municipal meeting, everyone in the room was all smiles as Wiegand and town supervisor Carl Zatz announced their satisfaction with the settlement that they had reached with the Riverside Trust, whose accounting firm, Berdon, LLP, had been engaged in a three-year legal battle with the town. Tom Harvey, an attorney representing part-time Gardiner resident Robert De Niro, hand-delivered a check reimbursing the town in full for its legal expenses incurred fighting a lawsuit challenging the $6 million property tax assessment on the actor’s Phillies Bridge Road property.
“It’s been a costly ride, but everyone stuck to their guns,” said Zatz as he recounted the history of the tax squabble, which began in 2010 under the administration of previous town supervisor Joe Katz. On behalf of Riverside Trust, the corporation set up to hold ownership of the De Niro parcel, Berdon had filed a tax certiorari lawsuit against the town, seeking to reduce the 98-acre parcel’s assessment to $4 million. The town contended — and State Supreme Court justice Mary Work eventually agreed when the case came to her for review — that the actual market value of the property, which De Niro had extensively improved, is now closer to $9 million. Wiegand characterized the lawsuit as “very unusual,” noting that “99.9 percent of objections to assessments are handled through the grievance process.”
Work ruled against Riverside Trust back in June, but the accounting firm’s locally based certiorari lawyer immediately filed an appeal and initiated a new lawsuit challenging last year’s assessment. So by August, town officials found themselves faced with a difficult decision: whether to spend yet more taxpayer money continuing to contest the lawsuits, or cut their short-term losses while forfeiting thousands of dollars in potential tax income annually — and run the risk of setting a bad precedent that other large landholders might follow. “We’d won our case, but we were not making any headway” in resolving the situation, said Wiegand. “What we decided to do was make the assumption that Mr. De Niro did not know what was going on.”
Feeling that they could not pursue the court battle any further without some sense that Gardinerites approved of the expenditure, town officials went public with the story — which had previously been discussed only in executive session — at the first Town Board meeting in October, without casting any aspersions on the wealthy actor personally. The first press account appeared in the October 16 issue of the New Paltz Times; the Times Herald-Record picked up the story on October 27, and a Gardinerite whom Wiegand would identify only as “Anonymous” brought it to the attention of The New York Times, which ran a story on November 3 that in turn spawned press coverage across the country and overseas.
According to Harvey, whom Zatz introduced as De Niro’s “personal attorney,” the actor “didn’t hear anything about it until he picked up a newspaper and read that he was basically depleting the funds of this town. He was not particularly happy, and he called me — well, he didn’t call me; he screamed at me from TriBeCa; my office is in Midtown — and said, ‘What the heck is going on?’” A call to the accounting firm revealed that the certiorari attorney, working on contingency, had initiated the appeal on his own and not kept Riverside Trust apprised of the fact that the case had already dragged on in the courts for three years.
“The minute he found out, Mr. De Niro said, ‘I want this taken care of, and I want the accountant to take care of it,’” said Harvey. “So the accountant said, ‘Oops! We made a mistake. We apologize,’ asked for the amount, called emergency medical assistance and wrote a check for $129,000 to the Town of Gardiner.” Meeting attendees broke out in applause as the attorney handed over the check to the supervisor. De Niro, he said, “certainly wants you to know he’s a good neighbor; and had he known, this never would have happened.”
Zatz went on to explain that an agreement had been reached in which “the appeal to the court’s decision will be withdrawn” and the current $6 million assessment will stand. The town, for its part, will not at the present time seek to increase the valuation to the estimated $9 million market value. The Wallkill riverfront property — which came with a historic 18th-century stone house reputed to have been a waystation on the Underground Railroad, two barns and several other outbuildings — has undergone multiple elaborate renovations and even terraforming since the actor acquired it in 1997 for $1.5 million. Originally consisting of fairly level floodplain, its facilities — now including guesthouses, offices, a film studio, a gym complete with boxing ring, an in-ground pool with a window in one side, tennis courts and even a ski slope — are mostly hidden from view from the entrance gate by newly raised earth berms.
Town officials were uniform in their praise of De Niro for his willingness to resolve the issue quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction. “I’m grateful that we had such a great outcome,” said councilman David Dukler. Residents in the audience also seemed pleased by the news, with outspoken property tax reform advocate Gioia Shebar welcoming the “bonanza of publicity for those of us who are fighting to reform school taxes” and noting that the outcome “could have been a disaster” if the landowner had been a commercial enterprise rather than an individual.
“I have to really thank Mr. De Niro,” said a broadly beaming Zatz. “He really bounded up to the plate.” The resolution came so quickly that, he mused, “I probably should’ve asked for an ice skating rink, but I thought Warren was going to do that.” “It may not be too late for it,” Wiegand teased the supervisor, who responded, “The skating rink will be Phase II.”