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How a swanky private golf club fell into the crosshairs of eminent domain. (Hint: It wasn't to build a bridge.)

12:00 AM, Sep 7, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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North Hills, New York

IF, AS KARL MARX ONCE SAID, history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce, then maybe the saga of Deepdale Golf Club makes sense. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New London that forcing the sale of private property to promote economic development and broaden tax revenues passed constitutional muster, Americans have read about a steady parade of eminent domain horror stories, typically involving wealthy developers and cash-strapped city councils. But with Deepdale, eminent domain moved from heartbreak to absurdity, as the local mayor kicked around the idea of seizing a plush private golf course and making it "public."

Deepdale is located in the tony village of North Hills, New York, along a strip of Long Island's North Shore known as the Gold Coast. Founded in 1924 by William K. Vanderbilt II, its most famous members have included Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, as well as New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and a bevy of celebrities. The club boasts around 200 current members--by invitation only--and gauges the value of its 175-acre property at over $100 million.

Critics like to mock eminent domain abuse as "Robin Hood in reverse"--taking from the poor to benefit the rich. Not so in North Hills, where the fight for Deepdale pitted rich villagers against even richer golfers. Judged by its real estate prices and per capita income, North Hills, a village of about 4,500 residents, ranks among the wealthiest communities in America. And its location offers a vast array of nearby choices for those wishing to hit the links. According to Sports Illustrated, "There are 20 courses within five miles of the village and 51, including 11 public tracks, within 15 miles."

But Deepdale is the nicest, and most exclusive. Virtually all members reside outside North Hills. Only one, a retired Wall Street businessman named John Wilson, actually lives in the village.

The story of how Deepdale fell into the crosshairs of eminent domain traces back several years, to the tenure of former North Hills mayor John Lentini, a Republican, who served for over a decade. Shortly before his death in 2002, Lentini gave an interview to New York Newsday and gushed over a survey that had listed North Hills as the eighth wealthiest community in the United States. "This is a great community, full of warm people, most of whom are professionals," Lentini said, calling his village "a success story unrivaled in New York State."

Then he divulged his curious strategy for making North Hills even more attractive. "We believe our acquisition of the Deepdale Country Club will be the crown jewel of our municipality and bring us to a new level of North Shore Gold Coast affluence, perhaps bringing us to number one." Deepdale members were alarmed by the comment. Such chatter continued under Lentini's successor, Republican Marvin Natiss. But until recently the talk was just that--talk.

THAT ALL CHANGED in November 2005, when Deepdale received a letter from village attorney A. Thomas Levin. The letter made plain that North Hills was eager to acquire Deepdale via eminent domain. "In order for the Village to obtain information which would assist it in determining the appropriate way to proceed with such an acquisition, and to permit the Village to formulate an appropriate offer as required by the Eminent Domain Procedures Act," wrote Levin, "the Village requests permission for its appraiser to visit and inspect the property."

The thinking apparently went like this: Once North Hills paid "just compensation" for Deepdale, the club would become "public," with membership open only to the 4,500--mostly very wealthy--village residents. Having a ritzy public golf course in town would boost property values (and thus property tax revenues). And the hope of Mayor Lentini--that Deepdale might someday be "the crown jewel" of village life--would be realized. Yet Deepdale would effectively remain a private club, in the sense that membership would presumably be restricted to those villagers willing to pay an expensive fee.

Deepdale members swung into motion, hiring a bigwig Manhattan PR consultant. They also tapped John Wilson, the one Deepdale member who lives in North Hills, as their plaintiff in lawsuits filed against the village. Wilson worked closely with attorneys from the powerhouse firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. At least one Wachtell partner, Edward Herlihy, was also a Deepdale member, and he took to the Wall Street Journal to denounce the proposed seizure as "reckless" and "illegal."