2011-03-24 / Front Page

Wondering About Wonder Lake

Staff Reports

The expansion to Wonder Lake State Park can be accessed through property marked “No Trespassing” and “Private Property.” 
Carli-Rae Panny The expansion to Wonder Lake State Park can be accessed through property marked “No Trespassing” and “Private Property.” Carli-Rae Panny This month marks the one-year anniversary of New York State’s purchase of a weed-covered historic Patterson farm at more than four times its assessed value. Town officials, including Patterson Supervisor Michael Griffin, have expressed shock over the state’s unpublicized $2 million expenditure for the 162 acres adjacent to Wonder Lake State Park. Some, saying that there was an odd discrepancy between the property’s assessed value and its sale price, are branding the transaction “Wonder-Gate.”

The park has previously been the source of controversy as it also is adjacent to the property of former state senator Vincent Leibell, who pleaded guilty in December to federal corruption charges and preemptively resigned before taking office as the newly-elected Putnam County executive. For several years, the park did not have a public access point.

The state purchased the 162 acres on St. Patrick’s Day last year from Orator E. Woodward, whose family made its fortune by owning and then selling the Jell-O franchise—after it had been on the real estate market as a commercial property for nearly 20 years, with a few interested buyers over two decades. At the time, the town’s assessment office valued it at $534,800. The New York State Office of Park, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, says the land has become an extension of the state park, but the parks office has not publicly announced Wonder Lake’s expansion.

A realtor with knowledge of the property speculated that there was an unknown influence that kept the land from being bought by a developer. “Someone had influence over the politics in Patterson and did not want to see that property developed,” said the realtor. “Whoever did the appraisals should come under scrutiny because other properties in Patterson, in the same zone, that sold at the same time, sold for far less.”

Supervisor Griffin told the Courier that he felt “blindsided” by the transaction. “Normally we get notice that the state is considering the purchase of a property and then all of sudden that deal was done,” he said. “As far as I know, and with my conversations with the assessor, the state has never asked for our input relative to the property.”

Griffin claimed that last year the town flagged state officials regarding the extreme difference between the land’s sale price and assessment value. “I think it’d be interesting to know why the state would pay four times what a property is worth, especially considering how the property has steep slopes,” Griffin said. “When we questioned it, we were told not to worry about it, that the state had all their ducks in a row and that it was all fair and square.”

Skeptical neighbors have contacted both the Courier and their local politicians to investigate the state’s purchase.

Despite public scrutiny, the park agency maintains that is it erroneous to question the land’s sale price based on its assessment value. “Assessment is different for the property value,” said Dan Keefe, spokesman for the state park office.

On March 10, State Senator Greg Ball (40th district) wrote a letter to Rose Harvey, acting commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, requesting that her department provide an explanation for the state agency’s expenditure for unkempt fields during such difficult financial times. A spokesperson for Assemblyman Steve Katz (99th district) said he is also looking into the matter.

“I can tell you that we received an independent appraisal of the property for $2 million,” Keefe said. “The appraisal was based on comparable real estate sales, the price was based on that appraisal, the purchase was reviewed by the Attorney General and the State Comptroller’s Office.”

The state hired John Bernz, of Hudson Property Advisors, to perform a private real estate appraisal to evaluate the Woodward property. Bernz compared the land to four estates located in Patterson—the Winding Glades, LLC, property on Route 22, two Haviland Hollow Farm properties on East Branch Road, and the Howbern, LLC, property. He also compared it to an equestrian property on Starr Ridge Road in Southeast.

Based on the sale price of those estates, Bernz valued Woodward’s parcels at $2 million. By law, the state must seek at least two appraisals for purchases over $300,000. Another appraisal, not released by the state, valued the parcels at roughly $1.5 million.

Bernz would not offer comment regarding his appraisal without permission from the state.

More Open Space

According to multiple sources, the state had been actively looking for easier ways for the public to access Wonder Lake State Park. Woodward, who now resides in Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife, Maureen, told the Courier that the state had expressed interest in his land for years because of its proximity to the parkland.

According to a Prudential Serls real estate listing, the property has “an abundance of rolling meadows, stone walls, and mountain views, this parcel is an ideal fit for horse lovers or outdoorsman. West side of property boards NYS land, creating the ultimate in privacy.”

Although the Woodward land was zoned commercially, the potential for development was limited because of its proximity to New York City watershed and because of its steep slopes. When the state purchased the land, the parcel’s zoning was automatically changed to parkland, prohibiting any form of development.

Keefe, the park office’s spokesman, referred to the land as a “passive type of park” used to expand Wonder Lake State Park, since the properties are adjacent. Keefe said that the agency does not actively look for “buffer” areas near state parks, but that this particular purchase provides a “natural extension” to the parkland, something they only look for “when it makes sense.”

Keefe told the Courier that buying the Woodward property was in the spirit of the state’s Open Space Conservation Plan, supported financially through the Environmental Protection Fund, which gets its funds largely from the Real Estate Transfer Tax.

The Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation reportedly spent more than $268 million during the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Wonder Lake, a State Park?

In Patterson, located off of Cushman Road, a section of Wonder Lake State Park connects to the backyard of the home of former state senator Vincent Leibell, who will be sentenced April 1 for pleading guilty to federal charges of corruption last December. Leibell’s home, which was constructed in 2005, was presumed to be the subject of a federal investigation last summer, when the FBI subpoenaed documents relating to his house from the town’s building department.

New York has 178 state parks, yet it is unclear if Wonder Lake is part of this tally since it does not appear on the online state park registry. It is mentioned, however, on the DEC’s website. The state purchased Wonder Lake in 1998. The state bought additional land to expand the park in 2006—a transaction that was openly publicized and received supportive recognition from former governor George Pataki. Prior to the construction of Leibell’s home, the park could be accessed from Cushman Road, but now visitors enter through the parking lot on the opposite side of the park, off of Kent’s Ludingtonville Road.

Bill Bauman, park manager of Wonder Lake, said that the park is now easier to access from another entry point, off of Route 311, thanks to the extra 162 acres purchased from Woodward. But the entrance from 311 is currently blocked by private property still owned by Woodward. “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs are posted.

Bauman also explained that the extension of the park has not yet been publicized because the purchase only happened one year ago. This might be a common trend in Patterson: In 2008, Sen. Leibell’s Hudson Valley Trust obtained money to construct a covered bridge in an empty Patterson field. In 2011, when the Courier reported on the $250,000 project, Roger Gross, the Trust’s executive director, said they had only just begin to encourage the public to visit the bridge.

Assessment Value Versus Retail Price

Woodward’s property had been divided into five separate parcels— only two of which were purchased by the state. Notably, the Real Property Transfer Report filed with the county also contains inaccuracies. Texanne Vickery, named as the state’s attorney, filled out the form with the property’s description labeled as “Residential Vacant Land,” yet it is zoned as “Commercial” land.

George Michaud, director of the Putnam County real property tax agency, said the inaccuracies on the Real Property Transfer Report were mere common mistakes by the buyer’s attorney.

Perhaps most significantly, the assessment value specified on the form indicates that the assessment was from 2009 and listed it as $1,216,100. But according to town records, the two combined parcels were assessed at $1,220,800 in 2008 and then drastically dropped to $588,500 in 2009.

The Patterson assessor’s office blamed the discrepancy on an “inventory issue,” claiming the town had mistakenly combined the parcels that contain the house and barn with the vacant lots.

“There really is no recourse for an error like that,” Boryk, the town assessor, said, in reference to the attorney’s apparent blunders. “The math of that is not accurate. There’s nothing that we can do to make a demand for accuracy. So we just get it and chock it up to, ‘There’s another attorney with not very good math skills.’”

Furthermore, the town’s online records still show Woodward as the landowner of all five parcels even though the date and sale price were updated accurately. Also, the online file of one of the parcels purchased by the state incorrectly shows a photo of the house that sits on a separate lot still owned by Woodward. Boryk said the website is updated quarterly and he can think of no reason for the inaccuracies.

“It’s deceiving because there are no structures on the property that the state paid $2 million for,” said one Putnam resident, who wished to remain anonymous. “It sounds like one of two things happened here: someone was sleeping, or someone made a deal and is trying to cover it up.”

Woodward said that he had contacted the town many times to have his property’s assessment lowered. When the Courier informed him about the controversy surrounding the sale of his land, he replied, “I assure you that there was no hanky-panky or influence used.”

Texanne Vickery, the state’s attorney, could not be reached for comment.

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‘No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.’ ~Hal Borland