Claimed value of sleepy NY estate could come to haunt Trump

New headache for Trump

It’s sleepy by Donald Trump’s standards, but the former president's century-old estate in New York's Westchester County could end up being one of his bigger legal nightmares.

Seven Springs, a 213-acre swath of nature surrounding a Georgian-style mansion, is a subject of two state investigations: a criminal probe by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and a civil inquiry by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Both investigations focus on whether Trump manipulated the property's value to reap greater tax benefits from an environmental conservation arrangement he made at the end of 2015, while running for president.

Purchased by Trump in 1995 for $7.5 million, Seven Springs drew renewed scrutiny as he prepared to leave office and was on the cusp of losing legal protections he had as president. Vance issued new subpoenas in mid-December, and a judge ordered evidence to be turned over to James' office nine days after Trump departed Washington.

Other Trump legal woes, such as inquiries into his attempts to influence election officials and payments made on his behalf to women alleging affairs, have dominated the headlines. But former Manhattan prosecutor Duncan Levin said white-collar investigators go wherever the paper trail leads.

“While a tax issue related to a conservation arrangement might not be as sexy as a hush-money payment, prosecutors are likely to focus on any violation of law that they find,” Levin said. “Remember, the authorities got Al Capone on tax evasion.”

Seven Springs is an outlier in a Trump real estate portfolio filled with glossy high-rises and gold-plated amenities. It is listed on his website as a family retreat, although Trump hasn’t been there in more than four years.

At the heart of the estate is the mansion built as a summer getaway in 1919 by Eugene Meyer, who went on to become Federal Reserve chairman and owner of The Washington Post. In 2006, while pushing a plan to build luxury homes on the property, Trump floated the idea that he and his family were going to move into the mansion, but that never happened.

Brand new, the 28,322-square-foot dwelling featured more than a dozen bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley and a tennis court. Meyer's daughter, the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, was married at Seven Springs in 1940.

In her memoir “Personal History,” Graham described ambivalent emotions about going there, writing: “The older I got, the more I disliked the loneliness of the farm, but in my childhood days, it was, as I wrote my father when I was 10, ‘a great old Place.’”

At one point, Meyer owned about 700 acres. A philanthropic foundation established by him and his wife, Agnes, gifted 247 acres to the Nature Conservancy and the remaining land and buildings that made up Seven Springs to Yale University in 1973, after Agnes Meyer's death.

The estate changed hands again when the foundation took it back from Yale and operated a conference centre there before passing the real estate holdings to Rockefeller University, which eventually sold it to Trump.

Trump paid about $2.25 million under the list price for Seven Springs, acquiring the land as part of an effort to jumpstart his fortunes after a series of failures in the early 1990s, including casino bankruptcies and the sale of his money-losing Trump Shuttle airline.

Trump envisioned transforming it into his first championship-calibre golf course, with an exclusive clientele and lofty membership fees.

He hired an architecture firm to plot fairways and greens but abandoned the effort when residents voiced concerns that lawn chemicals would contaminate neighbouring Byram Lake, a local source of drinking water.

Trump’s then tried building houses. He proposed putting up 46 single-family homes, and after that plan also met community opposition, 15 mansion-sized dwellings which he described in 2004 as “super-high-end residential, the likes of which has never been seen on the East Coast.” The project was held up by years of litigation and no homes were ever built.

His development plans dashed, Trump opted for a strategy that would allow him to keep the property but reduce his taxes. He granted an easement to a conservation land trust to preserve 158 acres (60 hectares) of meadows and mature forest.

Trump received a $21 million income tax deduction, equal to the value of the conserved land, according to property and court records. The amount was based on a professional appraisal that valued the full Seven Springs property at $56.5 million as of Dec. 1, 2015.

That was a much higher amount that the evaluation by local government assessors, who said the entire estate was worth $20 million.

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