Silver Springs tax record for 80 Oregon Road

A public record of local taxes paid by the Trump Organization from 2009 to 2020 for 80 Oregon Road, the largest of three Silver Springs parcels in Bedford. Second half school taxes are due in early 2021.

When it comes to paying local taxes owed to the Town of Bedford, Donald Trump and The Trump Organization are no deadbeats.

According to Bedford’s tax assessor, the president’s principal business arm is paid-up in full on property and school taxes owed on its Seven Springs property and has made no efforts to reduce its local tax obligations, The Record-Review has found.

However, an invoice issued to the Trump Organization from the Town of Bedford for engineering and other services performed in connection with the property, valued at nearly $50,000, remains unpaid.

The Trump Organization property, known as Seven Springs, located in the towns of Bedford, New Castle and North Castle, has been in the public spotlight lately. It is among the subjects of an investigation by New York State Attorney General Letitia James into the Trump Organization’s finances. The 212-acre estate also figured prominently in a lengthy series of investigative reports in The New York Times and Washington Post examining Donald Trump’s taxes.

The Washington Post reported last Friday that in 2015, Mr. Trump used a possibly inflated appraisal of Seven Springs’ value to obtain a conservation easement on the property, resulting in a $21.1 million federal tax credit. Separately, The New York Times recently revealed tax records indicating Mr. Trump classified Seven Springs as an investment property, rather than a personal residence, and wrote off $2.2 million in property taxes as a business expense.

The state attorney general’s investigation addresses allegations that the Trump Organization inflated property values at Seven Springs for the purpose of maximizing federal income tax deductions. The president’s son, Eric Trump, in his role as executive vice president of the Trump Organization, testified in the case under oath on Monday.

In the wake of the national reporting on the president’s income tax avoidance strategies, there has been speculation locally about whether those moves have undercut his payment of town and school taxes. One resident, responding on social media to The Times’ reporting, for instance, wondered if “Trump owes our community quite a bit in property taxes.”

In fact, The Record-Review has confirmed, property taxes for the Bedford portion of Seven Springs have been paid in full, on time, and without any reductions or challenges.

“It’s like apples and oranges — two different worlds,” said Bedford town assessor Harold Girdlestone. “The taxes were not reduced and they haven’t filed any grievances,” he said. “The properties do not receive any real property tax exemptions and are fully taxed for county, town and school property taxes.”

Mr. Girdlestone said all three parcels in Bedford are classified and assessed as residential property and are located in a 4-acre residential zone. He said there are about 59 acres located with the Town of Bedford that are held in a conservation easement. He noted local tax rolls do not indicate whether an owner claims the property is used for investment or other business purposes, which could provide opportunities for the owner to declare related expenses such as local taxes as federal tax write-offs.

“If they get an exemption from the IRS, there is no effect here. In a residential zone, there are houses with vacant or ‘residual’ land,” he said. “They are all assessed at the same rate. The last time we did a townwide revaluation was in 1974. We don’t actively reassess; we only adjust as there are changes.”

Of the three Bedford parcels, 80 Oregon Road is the largest, at 60.74 acres. School taxes on that parcel were $52,241.98 in 2020, and have been over $50,000 a year for the past five years. Combined town and county taxes have hovered around $27,000 and $28,000 during the same period.

The parcel at 52 Oregon Road is 9.9 acres, with 2020 school taxes of $35,367.10; 60 Oregon Road is the smallest, at 7.87 acres, with 2020 school taxes of $10,505.64. There were late penalties charged against all three parcels for school tax in 2017; all were paid in full.

Property assessments and tax payments are public records, available on the town website at bedford.municipaltaxpayments.com.

The issue of whether the Trump Organization used inflated property valuations to improperly obtain large federal income tax exemptions or deductions is a separate matter. Regarding the state AG’s investigation, the Associated Press reported that the probe is civil rather than criminal in nature, and so far, no claims that any law was broken have been made. In addition, the content of Eric Trump’s deposition has not been made public.

Bedford town officials contacted by The Record-Review were mum on these issues relating to Mr. Trump’s federal taxes, saying they had no involvement with or knowledge of any of his attempts to obtain conservation easements on the property, or of the monetary value of those easements claimed on federal taxes.

The classification of the estate in 2014 as an “investment property” rather than a personal residence, as The Times reported, has also been a subject of attention. This designation appears to contradict a Trump Organization website description of Seven Springs as a “retreat for the Trump family” as well as a 2014 Forbes magazine interview in which Eric Trump described the property as a family compound.

Since then, Mr. Trump has reportedly written off $2.2 million in property taxes as a business expense. However, tax attorneys seem to differ on whether this is a legitimate deduction. In order to claim it as a business expense, the IRS requires efforts be made to rent it out. That was done on at least one notable occasion.

In 2009, the Trump Organization rented out Seven Springs to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Mr. Gaddafis staff erected a large, Bedouin-style tent on the property, which did not sit well with Bedford officials, who issued a stop-work order saying the tent was a temporary residence and did not have the required permits. Then-supervisor Lee Roberts, who was outraged that the foreign leader was to be staying in town, wound up talking to Mr. Trump on the phone, and he assured her that everything would be taken care of. Mr. Gaddafi never showed up, but Mr. Trump told CBS News in 2016 that Mr. Gaddafi still paid him a large amount for the arrangements.

The history of the 212-acre property is filled with twists and turns. The main house was built in 1919 by Eugene Meyer Jr., former head of the Federal Reserve and the first president of the World Bank, who later bought the Washington Post in 1933. Ownership passed to Yale University, then to Rockefeller University. It was bought by Mr. Trump for $7.5million in 1995; he intended to turn it into an exclusive private golf course, with luxury residences nearby, according to his public statements at the time.

Those plans never came to pass. Susan Carpenter, who was with the Westchester Land Trust from 1995 to 2016, told The Record-Review that after the golf course plan came to a halt because of stiff opposition from neighbors and local officials concerned about traffic and runoff into drinking water, Mr. Trump’s plan shifted to erecting luxury homes on the property. “He originally came in with a proposal to put houses on all three town parcels,” said Ms. Carpenter. “The three towns all said he would have to apply separately with all three planning boards, and he didn’t want to do that, so he dropped that proposal.” Mr. Trump then engaged in a multi-year legal battle, suing to gain access to a closed portion of a local road that ran through an adjacent Nature Conservancy preserve.

Mr. Trump eventually received approval for a 14-home subdivision on just the Bedford portion of the property. “The subdivision that was approved on the Bedford piece required him to restore an old historic home on the property before he filed for any building permits,” Ms. Carpenter said, “but he let that property deteriorate and didn’t want to deal with it.” Other sources have said they are not sure why the subdivision was never built.

Ms. Carpenter, who also served on the planning board and open space committee in New Castle, said in sum: “He spent years trying to put a golf course on there and then cut down a load of trees so he would have a better view from his mansion.”

According to The Washington Post, in 2013, the Bedford Planning Board passed a resolution giving final approval to develop the residential lots, with a list of 26 conditions that the Trump Organization would have to meet within 180 days. Bedford Town Planner Jeff Osterman provided The Record-Review with a sketch plan of the subdivision that was filed with the town. Town Attorney Joel Sachs said the process was never completed, and the Trump Organization failed to reimburse the town for the cost of hiring engineers and consultants to evaluate the proposal. A 2019 invoice for $46,976.63 has never been paid by the Trump Organization, and Mr. Sachs told The Record-Review he doesn’t expect it ever will.

According to recent published reports, Mr. Trump instead found a way to reap tax benefits from the estate by taking advantage of a conservation easement. In 2015, he signed a deal with a land conservancy in Pennsylvania, agreeing to waive future development plans on a large portion of the Seven Springs property, said to be more than 150 acres. In exchange, the easement was granted, enabling Mr. Trump to claim a $21.1 million charitable tax deduction. According to CNN, New York investigators said in court filings that Mr. Trump “apparently” took a $21 million income tax deduction on the lost development value to the property. The Washington Post said that deduction was based on a 2016 appraisal that valued Seven Springs at $56.5million, “more than double the value assessed by the three Westchester County towns that each contained a piece of the property.” The Post said the appraisal was written by commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, “which has worked with Trump over many years and whose New York City headquarters are in a building co-owned by Trump.”

According to the Post report, the firm established the value of the estate by assuming a future buyer could build and sell 24 mansions on the land, without providing evidence that such a subdivision would meet local regulations.

Knowledgeable local sources, who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on a confidential matter, indicated that a highly reputable land conservancy had been initially approached by the Trump Organization with an easement proposal on Seven Springs. The land conservancy did not pursue the matter because the applicant did not agree to abide by conditions that were set, and the evaluation was considered outrageously high, according to these individuals. Rebuffed by this conservation group, which the sources declined to name, the Trump Organization eventually obtained an easement from another organization, North American Land Trust, based in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

North American Land Trust is not an accredited member of the Land Trust Alliance, according to a spokesperson for the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C. The Post also reported that North American Land Trust is the subject of eight “high-profile” IRS cases examining the value of conservation easements it has granted to various property owners.

When The Record-Review called North American Land Trust to confirm it held an easement in the Town of Bedford — which is not indicated on the organization’s list of easements it has granted — the person who answered the phone sounded uneasy about the question, saying she would find somebody else to return the call“as long as it isn’t me.” She seemed doubtful as to whether anybody would actually call back. As of press time, no one has.

Jeff Morris is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where he covers the Town of Bedford and the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. Prior to joining the paper he was a reporter and columnist for the Lewisboro Ledger and a business magazine editor.

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