Westchester builder constructs homes in his backyard

Westchester builder constructs homes in his backyard – A. De Vito & Son Inc

“Not in my backyard.”

Over the last two decades, this phrase has become one of the most apt and commonly heard sayings in suburban America. It has even led to the coining of the name “Nimby” to describe those who feel that once their home has been built, any and all other homes should be built someplace – anyplace – else.

Now a prominent Westchester home builder is demonstrating that there is an opposite side to every argument. John DeVito is about to build not one but 12 custom homes quite literally in his own backyard.

The builder, whose company, A. DeVito & Son, Inc., has the approvals and is ready to break ground on the 12-lot luxury subdivision called Olde Orchard Hill Farm.

The new homes are to be built on a 26-acre portion of the 64-acre former Edward Petrillo estate on Orchard Hill Road in the Town of Somers, and construction is scheduled to start this month. Marketing of the new homes is being handled exclusively by the Somers office of Houlihan/Lawrence, Westchester’s largest independent realtor.

The proof that DeVito is not a Nimby lies in the fact that a key element in the development plan calls for him to live in the former Petrillo house. In fact, he and his family have already moved into the home, which sits on 38 acres of what was the 64-acre estate. By deed restriction, this portion of the property cannot be further subdivided.

Set on a bill overlooking the Amawalk Reservoir north of Route 35, Olde Orchard Hill Farm is in the Somers School District and has a Katonah mailing address. The location is just a five-minute drive from the hamlet of Katonah, Interstate 684, the Saw Mill River Parkway and Metro-North’s Katonah train station.

DeVito, 42, has already started renovating the former Petrillo home. The original portions of the house date to the mid-1800s, when it was built as a simple farmhouse. The home was expanded, and the property around it became a country estate when acquired by movie mogul Jack Cohn. A top executive of Columbia Pictures, Cohn reportedly entertained the Hollywood elite of the day and had a separate screening room created for private showings of Hollywood’s latest films.

In 1957, Edward Petrillo bought and further expanded the estate as a country retreat for his family. The head of Yonkers Contracting, one of the state’s largest highway contractors, Petrillo loved the property and shaped it to his own liking.

Petrillo hosted large parties for family and friends with hundreds attending. A highlight for visiting children was a chance to ride on the miniature train that Petrillo salvaged when the Freedom Land amusement park in the Bronx was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by Co-Op City.

The train was just one of Petrillo’s hobbies. He also raised miniature ponies, and the barns he built for them still stand. He also lovingly tended the old apple and pear orchards, which still bear fruit today. DeVito plans to keep as many of the fruit trees in place as he can and will relocate those that must be moved elsewhere on the property.

A 20-year resident of Somers, DeVito had lived near the Petrillo estate on the last 14 years. Following Edward Petrillo’s death. the Petrillo family put the estate on the market. DeVito, whose own family has built both residential and commercial building for many years, felt the property hate development potential. At the same time, he did not want to see the overall appearance and character of this Somers area drastically change.

“I’ve watched Somers grow,” DeVito said. “Its concerns are my concerns. I’m conscientious about development. A. DeVito and Son’s reputation is as a high quality builder, and the town is aware of that. My brother will oversee the project, and the plan is to take our time, build fine homes and live up to that reputation. What’s more as I’m going to be the next door neighbor of the homes we build, I’m not going to do, anything I wouldn’t want to see.”

DeVito approached his neighbors first about his idea of buying the property, developing houses on Orchard Hill and Hilltop Road frontage, and preserving the overall appearance and integrity of the rest of the property. Hilltop Road runs off Old Orchard Road, and the sites for the new homes face it.

The neighbors were supportive of the concept and that DeVito’s company would be the builder; and they especially took into consideration DeVito’s intention to live on the property himself. The neighbors then supported DeVito when he approached the Town of Somers for an approval; and the town, too, was supportive of the plan.

“I think this is a case where a good and sensitive land development plan was recognized and supported,” DeVito explains. “There will be some development; but at the same time, the character of the property that the people like is being preserved. More than half the site isn’t being subdivided into lots. It is a plan that seems to satisfy everyone.”

“The Olde Orchard Hill Farm homes are expected to command top dollar, from $650,000 and up,” said Lee Zipp, manager of Houlihan/Lawrence’s Somers office “Each home will be situated on two acres and will be a minimum of 4,000 square feet with the majority of the homes being approximately 5,000 square feet. They will he custom-built with the customer having the ability to bring their own architect or choose from a sampling of accomplished local architects with whom A. DeVito & Son has worked.”

Zipp said that Houlihan/Lawrence is offering “unique properties and the ability to handle total individual whims in terms of building. Most of the other new houses in Somers are `spec’ houses, meaning you’re buying what the builder had in mind with little opportunity for adding personal, custom touches.”

All of the homes will be built with the “Smart House” system, allowing the homeowner to fully manage the house – from lighting, heating and cooling to entertainment, security and energy conservation. All of this can be done outside the home by phone and from inside the home by using a control panel or a personal computer.

DeVito’s brother, Anthony, 30, will run the Olde Orchard Hill Farm construction project, which is expected to be completed over the next three to four years. A family business, A. DeVito & Son, Inc. has quite a history of its own. The company was founded 90 years ago in Mount Vernon, NY, by John and Anthony’s great grandfather. Subsequently, the operations were assumed by their grandfather, Tony, who, at the age of 88, continues to offer his wise advice to the younger generation. The company took its name when their father, the late Jack DeVito, joined the business.

The company moved to Yorktown in 1954. Through the years. A DeVito & Son has constructed all types of buildings, but a mainstay has always been custom home construction. “The building business is highly prone to recessions; and we’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to avoid being hit by major recessions was to be diversified in what you build. Therefore, we have always kept a hand in commercial, as well as residential, construction. We found that, in general, when one area is very slow the other tends to be okay. This diversity has helped us weather a lot of tough times when other builders have failed. The company, whose headquarters is located on Front Street in Yorktown Heights, has 18 employees.

Headquartered in Bronxville, Houlihan/-Lawrence Inc. is Westchester and Putnam’s largest independently owned real estate company with 19 offices serving Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties. It is also the exclusive area affiliate for Sotheby’s International Realty.

meeting was taped and will be shown on Cross throughout the next month.

Forms were handed out and reviewed line by line. Those attending the meetings generally were pleased at the way Finance officials, including Deputy Mayor Martin Oestreicher and Chief Review Assessor Douglas Layne, responded to the many, many questions.

Action Committee Chairman Martin Karp answered some inquiries as did Charles R. Rappaport, president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperative, seated in the front row of the audience with his wife, Eva.

Along with the relief at the deadline extension for building-wide and unit ownership information to Oct. 15, managers were also glad to have until April to comply with the more specific individual unit information.

The information requested includes bathroom, kitchen and parking information as well as the social security numbers or KIN numbers of all owners of the units. One I.D. number per unit, however, must be filed by Oct. 15, officials said. Additionally, units owned by foreigners can be marked “999,” in the first three boxes.

All data for the initial filing should reflect the status of the unit as of Jan. 5, 1996, the taxable status date for the year. The Apr. 1, 1997 updates on ownership and sales would be based on Jan. 5, 1997 data.

Units owned by Co-Op

One question brought up at the meeting involved the ownership of units owned by the co-op itself. If the co-op owns more than three units, all the units will be ineligible. “That was checked with the state, and that’s how they provided for it,” said a Finance Spokesperson Richard Loconte late last week.

“The law is a horror the way it was written and they are forced to administer it,” said Charles R. Rappaport, president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperative.

There are also other ownership positions that are ineligible. Where four units are owned, for instance, in a combination apartment that is still legally four units, all tour are ineligible.

Developments currently receiving exemptions under Sections 421-a and 421-b, J-51 exemptions, and benefits under Articles II, Mitchell Lama; IV, Limited Dividend Housing Companies; V Redevelopment Companies; XI Housing Development Fund Companies and New York City Housing Preservation Development’s Division of Alternative Management Programs – such as HDFC’s – are not eligible. Also ineligible are Class I condos which already have received property tax relief through their reclassification from Class 11.

Sponsor owned units are ineligible, too.

Rappaport advised there is a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each board member who willfully does not comply with the law. While Finance official Layne said “It’s perfectly acceptable not to apply in the first or second years,” Rappaport warned of the board’s fiduciary duty to seek all discounts.

Where buildings are still controlled and/or managed by sponsors whose units are ineligible and who may be uncooperative, Rappaport suggested that a motion should be made for a resolution stating the board should comply with the filings for the real estate tax abatement program. “Insist on a roll call vote,” said Rappaport. “If it’s not at least you have it in writing. If the managing agent refuses to do it, you can fire him or sue him for not complying and for the loss in any real estate taxes.”

Rappaport also advises pro rating any refunds or credits to eligible unit owners on a monthly basis on the maintenance bill to avoid cash flow problems for the building or problems with refunds should people sell their units.

Sales Data

Many people said they will not file the sales information because that information is already provided to the Dept. of Finance

“If the sales info is a problem, the application will not be rejected,” said Loconte of Finance, a statement echoed at the meetings by Oestreicher.

Certiorari attorney Jeffrey Golkin believes Finance is also overreaching in its requirements to furnish information not necessarily relevant to the substantive abatement being requested.

Many speakers were concerned about the “hidden time bombs” that might be unleashed by the compiling of this information, particularly sales prices.

Since Finance is supposed to come up with a new law by the end of the year, officials said they need the information to statistically analyze what could happen under various scenarios.

These unfortunately may include the elimination of Section 581 which currently requires co-ops and condominiums to be assessed in comparison to like rental buildings that are subject to rent controls. The assessment by gross sales value could mean higher taxes for these residents and is something the industry worries about.

No Commercial Shares

One problem that surfaced at the meetings involves those buildings whose garages and commercial portions are not allocated shares. This means their assessed value is higher per share – often over the $15,000 split for the benefits – and they are therefore eligible only for smaller benefits.

Victor Hade, a certiorari attorney with Schwartz Weiss Steckler & Hoffman, says he is concerned about this issue.

“Everything is allocated to the residential, but if you look at what the law says, you are supposed to look at percentages,” he explained. “So Finance can look at the square footage end subtract out whet is commercial and multiply that by the assessment and divide by the shares. That’s the fair way to do it.”

Charge Per Unit

Managing agents are also contemplating a charge of from $5 to $15 per unit, says manager Greg Carlson, who helped organize the meeting and conducted an unscientific survey of their reactions. “This is a reality of life,” he said. “It will probably be a one-time charge.”

Leslie Kaminoff, chairman of AKAM Associates said, “It’s going to put an incredible burden on our staff and companies will have to bring people on for this project. The problem is getting all the information.”

Many people are worried that already overworked Finance employees who cannot now cope with the resolution of problems in a timely manner will be overwhelmed with the new filing burden. Roy Sparber, a certiorari attorney with Brauner Baron Rosenzweig & Klein wanted to know how many people had been hired by Finance to help. The answer: “None, but they are being redeployed.”

Finance will eventually provide a breakdown of eligible units but boards are responsible for distributing the credits and abatements to the eligible unit owners.

Questions about the filings in general should be directed to (212) 669-2700, however, unit owners cannot apply individually for benefits and should address questions to management and not to Finance.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Hagedorn Publication

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group