The home-improvement approach of Lee and Cuomo contrasts with that of another New Castle power couple: Hillary and Bill Clinton. The former president was Cuomo's boss when he served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Clintons obtained permits for projects valued at $376,000 that were done at their five-bedroom Old House Lane home. Their assessment rose 9 percent to reflect some — but not all — of those improvements. The Clintons' 2013 tax bill on the 1.1-acre property was $54,355.
But questions have arisen over improvements made to the Clintons' barn, which has been used as living space for more than a decade, but is not listed that way on assessment records.
Keeping one's assessment from rising — or getting it reduced — is all part of suburban living in high-tax Westchester, and there are plenty of homeowners who do work to their homes without a permit. It's also a county where most municipalities have not revalued their real estate for decades, leaving thousands of homeowners with houses assessed and taxed at less than what they are worth. Absent building permits, the main purpose of which is to ensure safe construction, assessors have nothing to flag when work is done so they can decide whether it's increased a home's taxable value.
When Lee bought Lily Pond during the real estate market decline in 2008, the house, on a knoll off Route 133 close to the Mount Kisco border, was assessed as if it was valued at $1.7 million. According to interviews and the property's Multiple Listing Service listing, the seller had an agreement with the New Castle Assessor's Office to reduce the assessment to reflect the sale price, which Lee negotiated down to $1.2 million, based on its condition at the time.
The subsequent remodeling job was featured in USA Today, New York magazine, People, and on the cover of Elle Decor. Lee "ripped out an '80s-era powder room and its 'icky' bunny wallpaper," according to a December 2010 article in USA Today. "She put parallel white marble islands in the kitchen. She joined two smaller, darker spaces and installed a wall of windows to create one big, bright living room."
Maskiell said work of that magnitude "would definitely require a permit. I haven't heard about any remodeling there. Anything that involves removing walls or reconfiguring doors would require a building permit."
New York magazine, meanwhile, in March 2011, reported on her house improvements and how the governor and Lee divvy up domestic duties: "Lee just remodeled the basement. 'We're very traditional,' she says of their respective roles. 'I don't like to put gas in the car or take out the garbage. He doesn't particularly like to decorate window treatments.' "
There is no finished basement listed in town assessment records for 4 Bittersweet Lane.
Six years after the property was purchased, and after all of the improvements, the tax assessment hasn't changed. The house's market value determined by the town has dropped by 30 percent, to $936,000. That's based on the state's imperfect equalization rate, which is a broad measure of annual home sale data. Overall, the state found that real estate values have declined in New Castle since 2008, when the recession hit. The specific value of Lee's house, however, could have gone up.
An email message to Lee at the Food Network was answered by Larry Schwartz, Cuomo's secretary in Albany. He said any work performed at the Lee-Cuomo residence as noted in the USA Today article was "all decorative renovations and they don't require building permits. ... It was retiling, painting, wallpapering. It's like her line of work — decorative. I'm not aware of any rooms that were combined."
And what of the basement remodeling noted in the New York magazine article?
"Again, the key word is decorative," Schwartz wrote in an email. "Window treatments."
Maskiell said that if the basement was remodeled as reported, a building permit would be needed because it would expand the house's living space.
According to New Castle town code, homeowners who retroactively seek building permits for already-completed work pay a $1,000 fee, and triple the construction permit fee.
Maskiell said it took six months "of chasing and threatening" in 2012 to induce Lee to apply for a permit for the installation of the shed and gazebo work valued at $11,000.
"I got no response from her people," Maskiell said. "I finally spoke with his (Cuomo's) people. They sat down with me and said, 'yes, yes, yes.' Then they didn't get back to me. I finally sent a violation and got a response. Finally, Larry Schwartz got in touch with me."
New Castle Assessor Philip Platz said the shed and gazebo project did not raise the property's assessment because it didn't increase the home's value. Earlier this month he said he would investigate why the improvements were not listed in the town's electronic record for the property. Platz did not return a phone message on Friday.
Assessors say it's a judgment call as to whether improvements listed on a building permit add taxable value to a home, especially if the work is done during a housing market decline, which could leave the property over-assessed.
Some projects may also add no value to the home.
That was Platz's determination in 2012, after the Clintons completed a $150,000 project that included renovation of their master bedroom and structural work required for installation of a wider window.
But Platz said he didn't inspect the house when the work was finished, and isn't sure the Secret Service would allow such an inspection.
"I would have to look into it," Platz said. "I don't know if I'm allowed on their property."
Platz's predecessor, John McGrory, said he obtained access to the Clinton home by asking the U.S. Secret Service for permission to inspect renovations done in 2001 and 2002.
Then, the Clintons had obtained permits for $226,000 worth of work, including installation of a swimming pool, a kitchen renovation and the additions of a gym and library to the carriage house. He increased the assessment by 9 percent and the Clintons' property taxes rose to reflect the change.
The Journal News obtained the permits under the Freedom of Information Law, after initially being denied by town Clerk Mary Deems, who argued that disclosing documents relating to building projects at the Clinton and Lee-Cuomo homes would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" and "endanger the life or safety" of people living at the homes. The town released the documents after the newspaper appealed the ruling to the New Castle Town Board.
When the Clintons paid $1.7 million for their home in 1999, it was assessed as if it were worth just $1 million — a very good deal for the former president and his wife, who is a likely candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Fifteen years later, after investing $376,000 in improvements, the property is assessed as if it is worth $1.8 million.
The assessment record, however, does not include the living space in the carriage house, which was improved with the gym and library in 2002 and inspected by McGrory. It's not clear whether McGrory took it into account when he raised the Clintons' assessment back then.
A Chappaqua resident who helped the previous owner with the sale recalls that there was an apartment on the building's second floor, and that the previous owner was required to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the living space. The building is listed as a "barn" on assessment records.
Platz, the town assessor, said the carriage house improvements could add value to the property.
"I'd have to look into it," he said. "If it's a big barn with nothing in it, the value would be different than if it has a kitchen and bathroom and bedrooms."
The Clintons say they obtained building permits for the work done on their property and have paid the tax bills they receive from the town.
"Like other homeowners in the community, the Clintons received a building permit, did their improvements, and pay the tax bills the town assesses each year," said Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Bill Clinton.
Cuomo's name isn't on the deed for 4 Bittersweet Lane. But Lee and Cuomo were already three years into their relationship when Lee bought the New Castle property in 2008. By 2009, Cuomo had registered to vote at the Bittersweet Lane address, according to state records, and he calls Lily Pond home.
A leading real estate broker in Chappaqua said that the home's value could be as high as $1.5 million — 60 percent more than the value at which it is taxed.
Barry Graziano, brokerage manager at Houlihan Lawrence's Chappaqua office, estimated that Lily Pond would be worth between $993,000 and $1.3 million depending on its condition. The value could be boosted by as much as 15 percent to $1.5 million, because it was remodeled by Lee, a celebrity, and is inhabited by New York's first family, he said.
"Market value is what people are willing to pay," said Graziano. "There could be a 15 percent premium because of who lives there."
He said the Clintons' home, assessed as if it were worth $1.8 million, would fetch between $2.3 million and $2.8 million in today's market, between 28 and 56 percent more than its current taxable value.
Another public official, whose home improvements did not result in assessment hikes but did get a permit, is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Cuomo in November's governor's race.
In 2011, Astorino obtained a building permit for $10,000 worth of work to his already-finished basement at 281 Pythian Ave. in Hawthorne. A drop ceiling was installed, along with a half-bathroom. The four-bedroom house has two baths, 1,518 square feet of living space and sits on a quarter-acre lot.
The property, assessed at $606,000, was purchased by Astorino for $705,000 in 2004. Town Assessor James Timmings said the assessment was raised significantly under the home's previous owner.
"Assessment is all about equality," he said. "Whenever a project is done, we review it, based on its contributory value."
Astorino said he obtained the building permits to make sure there were no repercussions.
"I wanted to make sure everything came out right," he said. "A problem with the project was the last thing I needed."