How Trump turned defeats into triumph with '06 tax-deductible land gift on Putnam hilltop
President Donald J. Trump’s failures to create golf courses in the Lower Hudson Valley were manifold in the 2000s.
Proposals at French Hill in Yorktown, Indian Hill in Putnam Valley, and Seven Springs in North Castle were all defeated at the hands of citizen activists, unwavering town officials and unforgiving landscapes that proved impractical for the creation of environmentally sensitive playgrounds for the region’s duffers.
But Trump, who hates to lose, turned those decisive defeats into financial triumphs by either donating his undeveloped land to the state of New York, or, in one case, giving away the development rights to a land trust.
These donations were part of a financial strategy, under audit for years by the Internal Revenue Service, which allowed Trump to pay no federal income taxes during 10 of the 15 years between 2001 and 2016, according to a recent New York Times investigation.
He paid just $750 in 2016 and 2017, the report found.
Donald J. Trump State Park
Trump, who set up limited liability corporations to build the courses, took tax deductions by donating the land at French Hill in Yorktown and Indian Hill in Putnam Valley to New York state to create Donald J. Trump State Park. He also donated a conservation easement to the North American Land Trust at Seven Springs.
While much attention has focused this fall on the $21 million conservation easement at Seven Springs, it’s also instructive to take a new look at the donation of 436 acres to New York state for land he valued at $26.1 million, according to Trump campaign documents given to the Washington Post by the Associated Press.
The donation was made in 2006, when Trump's hit TV reality show, "The Apprentice," provided a huge spike in his income, the Times reported. The Times investigation found that Trump paid $57 million in income taxes in 2005 and 2006.
His land donation to New York in 2006 to create Donald J. Trump State Park helped cut his tax bill.
Trump bought the undeveloped land for $2.7 million between 1998 and 2000, which included $250,000 for 56 acres from New York state along the Taconic State Parkway in Putnam Valley, according land records. That came to about $6,200 an acre for the 436-acre parcels.
The French Hill property included about 20 acres of wetlands, which drained into the New York City watershed, putting major constraints on development. So did the future golf course's lack of a water source for irrigation.
The value of Trump’s donation was almost ten times higher than its purchase price —about $60,000 an acre on undeveloped land where he failed to win approval to build. For someone in Trump’s top tax bracket, a deduction of $26 million could bring him tax savings of as much as $13 million — four times what he paid for the land.
What ended up in Trump’s tax returns is still unknown, as Trump has declined to release them, unlike every U.S. president since the late 1960s, with the exception of President Gerald Ford. But filers who claim deductions for land donations must include an appraisal substantiating their claim.
Tim Miller, a land use planner who worked for Trump at French Hill, Trump National in Briarcliff Manor and Indian Hill, has personal experience with donating land in Putnam County. Miller said he donated 85 acres of land to the Open Space Institute in the late 1990s, which was then transferred to New York state to expand Fahnestock State Park.
Miller made improvements to the land he donated by subdividing it into 3 building lots, which were appraised at about $70,000 per lot. The remaining undeveloped 70 acres were valued at about $4,000 an acre — slightly less than what Trump paid for his undeveloped land.
“You wonder how Trump found an appraiser to say his land was worth $26 million,” Miller said. “That’s a joke.”
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, D-Ossining, was among the dignitaries who attended Trump's 2006 announcement of the land donation on Indian Hill. Trump arrived by helicopter with his daughter, Ivanka, and son, Donald Jr., to join Gov. George Pataki at the hilltop celebration.
“If he says it was worth $26 million, I don’t know of anybody who agrees with him on it,” Galef said.
Putnam Valley Supervisor Sam Oliverio, who was a county legislator at the time, said opposition was strong in town against the proposed 18-hole golf course.
“We didn’t want it," he said. "When he announced the donation, I realized he was using it as a tax write-off.”
The Trump Organization did not respond to phone messages left last week.
The bifurcated Trump State Park — with its 154-acre French Hill section 6 miles away from the 282-acre Indian Hill parcel on the Putnam Valley-Yorktown line — is well-known to motorists who view giant signs announcing its proximity on both the northbound and southbound lanes of the Taconic State Parkway.
But there's no information about the park on the New York State Parks website, nor is it listed in a current brochure of state parks in Westchester and Putnam County.
The Trump park’s two sections include mowed meadows, unmarked trails, and, until Thursday, state property defaced with scrawls of vulgar graffiti about our nation’s 45th president. The state has invested $380,000 to spruce up the park's entrances, with new parking lots, and the demolition of a dilapidated house in Yorktown. Planning for a new trail system at French Hill is complete, with construction of the trails awaiting state funding.
A state parks crew removed the graffiti Thursday, less than 24 hours after Tax Watch mentioned it to a parks spokesman.
The land donation at Indian Hill came as a bit of surprise to Putnam Valley onlookers who had remembered that Trump in 2003 had announced the sale of Indian Hill for $15 million to a New Jersey developer, US Home, which eyed 495 units of senior housing on the ridge top.
So why was it Trump and not US Home that gave the land to New York state?
It turns out that Trump never sold the property to US Home, according to Putnam County land records. The sale of the Indian Hill property that Trump had trumpeted wasn’t a sale after all. Documents signed by Trump show he retained ownership while US Home explored development possibilities through an agreement struck in April 2003. That agreement was terminated 21 months later in 2005.
By April 2006, New York state had a 436-acre park. And Donald J. Trump had his tax deduction.
Follow David McKay Wilson on Facebook or Twitter @davidmckay415. Check out his columns here.