Now playing: The Property Tax Appeal, starring Robert De Niro

by: Richard De Angelis
6 Nov 2014

When I first read about Robert De Niro’s pending tax appeal on his estate in the Hudson Valley, I thought of the endless possibilities for our tax appeal blog.  I mean, this is the great Robert De Niro; Bobby D!  He is an American film icon who has starred in dozens of great movies, including Raging Bull, The Godfather: Part II, The Deer Hunter, Goodfellas, Casino and even showed us his comedic side in Analyze This and Meet the Parents.  Now, here he is starring in his own property tax appeal.  I thought, finally, property tax appeals hit the big time.  Maybe he will make a movie about the exciting life of a tax appeal attorney.

After the initial excitement wore off I realized that De Niro’s appearance on the property tax appeal stage will not make tax appeals sexy.  My wife has assured me that nothing can make property tax appeals sexy.  But that should not stop us from trying to have some fun with this story.

An article in the New York Times described this is a simple challenge to a $6 million property assessment.  Or, like De Niro’s Michael Vronsky in The Deer Hunter, might say: “This is this. This ain’t something else. This is this.”  But, there is nothing simple about this story and there is something else to it.

The De Niro property, owned by a trust, is nearly 100 acres, with 2,700 feet of frontage along the Hudson River in Gardiner, New York.  The property includes an 18th-century farmhouse that has been renovated and expanded to now include a total of six bedrooms and seven bathrooms.  There is also a barn that houses a 14,000-square-foot recreation center with a game room, gym, basketball court, swimming pool, steam room, sauna and small film studio.   Another barn was converted into a workshop and another was built as an office. Rounding out the improvements on the property are two guesthouses, a tennis court and a small ski slope.  As De Niro’s character in Midnight Run, Jack Walsh, said: “That’s a, that’s a very respectable neighborhood.”  Of course, there the character was only talking about a few hundred thousand dollars.  I wonder how Jack Walsh might describe De Niro’s real-life, multi-million dollar estate on the Hudson.

To offer the privacy one would expect for this type of property, an estimated $1 million in landscaping blocks the view of De Niro’s estate from the road.   I guess you cannot be too careful these days, especially if you are a famous movie star.  Privacy and security are paramount.  It appears that De Niro took the advice of his character Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents:  “Trust me … when you start having little Fockers running around, you’ll feel the need for this type of security.”

It is plain to see that the De Niro property is not your typical weekend getaway place. But then again, we are not talking about a regular guy who leads a regular life.  It reminds me of the movie Heat when Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) asked De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, whether he wanted a “regular type life.” De Niro’s character responded: “What the f–k is that? Barbeques and ballgames?” As an interesting side note, Heat was the first time De Niro and Pacino were in a scene together in their illustrious careers.  Now, back to our tax appeal saga.

What is a 100 acre estate on the Hudson River in Gardiner New York worth? The appraiser for De Niro’s trust says the property is worth $4 million while the town’s appraiser claims that the assessment had actually undervalued the property, which he says is worth $8.985 million.

The trial court agreed with the Town. In an effort to resolve the matter and avoid an appeal, the town offered a settlement for slightly less than the $6 million assessment.  The De Niro trust rejected the offer. Perhaps the town should have followed the advice of De Niro’s character, the young, pre-Don, Vito Corleone, in Godfather: Part II who said:  “I make him an offer he don’ refuse.”

But the town failed to present such an offer and De Niro appealed the trial court’s ruling.  Upon hearing of this, one might think that the real life De Niro shares something in common with his character, Ace Rothstein, in the movie Casino, who said:  “There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way and the way that I do it.”

So, what is at stake? The $6 million assessment carries an annual tax bill of $170,000.  Should the trust prevail, it stands to save $57,000 annually.  Not surprisingly, some in town are not happy with Mr. De Niro continuing the fight on appeal.

One resident took umbrage with De Niro’s appearance in a New York State tourism television advertisement in which the actor claims that his favorite place is the Hudson Valley.  That resident, Bill Hess said: “If he loves it so much … maybe he should help pay to maintain it.”

While I do not know Mr. De Niro, I do want to believe that he loves New York and the Hudson Valley.  I do hope that his decision to pursue his appeal came only after careful and thoughtful consideration.  After all, he did play a mob boss, Paul Vitti, in the movie Analyze This who told his psychiatrist, played by Billy Crystal, “I wasn’t really gonna whack you.…  Okay, I was gonna whack you.  But I was real conflicted about it.”  Maybe the folks in Gardiner can take solace in the fact that even though De Niro is pursuing the appeal he might be conflicted.

After I started writing this, I had to find out for myself why De Niro is pursuing the tax appeal. So I jumped in my car and headed up Route 287 North to the New York State Thruway to Gardiner.  When I arrived at the gate of the De Niro estate I pushed the button on the intercom and man’s voice came over and said “yes.”  I explained who I was and that I was writing a piece for our blog about the pending tax appeal and I wanted to speak with the great actor.  After a long pause the voice on the other end of the intercom said, “Are you talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me?” With that, I jumped in my car, turned around and drove home when in my rearview mirror I saw following me some guy with mohawk who was driving a taxi (yes, one final reference to another De Niro classic, Taxi Driver).*

*DISCLAIMER:  Although inspired in part by the desire of this writer to know just what Mr. De Niro thinks about his tax appeal and the reaction of Gardiner residents, the events described in the preceding paragraph are purely fictional and do not depict any actual event.  They are nothing more than the ramblings of a tax appeal attorney who has seen too many De Niro movies and had trouble sleeping last night.

Well, I realize that I may have gone a bit off our usual topic here.  Being a fan of Robert De Niro I should appreciate the danger of taking a good thing too far.  Not that he has done so often, but when he did, it was bad.  Did you see his third stint as Jack Byrnes, the angry and overly suspicious father-in-law in Little Fockers?

That said, I will close with this.  The people of Gardiner may never know what is motivating De Niro in his tax appeal.  Perhaps it is simply that he wants to make sure that he is taxed based on the market value of his property, just like any other resident of Gardiner.  And, for what it’s worth, his ability to pay — and that of any property owner — should have no bearing on the amount taxed.  If It did, what would stop any other person from refusing to pay, claiming it is too much for them to do so.

A copy of the New York Times article, De Niro, in Tax Fight, Wins Little Sympathy From His Neighbors, may be found here.