Dec 19, 2014

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A Family Farm Falls

By Arianna Johnson

Imagine owning a farm that has been passed down for generations, then having it all taken away…

That is exactly what happened to farmer John White. His family’s 300-year-old, 57 acre farm is in serious jeopardy of being lost to an oil tycoon from Houston. This whole fiasco came about in an innocent attempt to save his children the headache of having to pay millions of dollars in estate taxes after his death. White had found that one of his cottage renters, Anthony Petrello, could help. Petrello offered to buy 11 acres of the White property for $2 million dollars, in order to alleviate some of the future debt; the deal, however, was not as simple as that. More than a decade has past, and there are still lawsuits being pursued.

John White, 89, is a World War II veteran, a retired Bridgehampton volunteer firefighter, and has worked his family’s land, growing potatoes, for as long as he can remember. He has never put a monetary price on the oceanfront farm, setting aside conservation land in Sagaponack strictly for the family, eventually totaling over 90 acres and worth millions. But they have never given into developers, showing how strong their attachment is to the land. Being old-fashioned and thrifty, however, has its costs. Deals made by supposedly honest men and sealed with handshakes, no longer hold up, especially in a court of law.

Petrello, 56, is the president and C.O.O. of Nabors Industries, the largest land-based oil-drilling company in the world. His background story is that of a typical lower-middle-class boy who excelled in math and got a free ride to Yale, only to go onto Harvard Law School. He climbed the ropes, working at Baker & McKenzie in New York, and then at 37 accepted his present position. Being located in Houston came with the job, but Petrello wanted to find a way to come back to his roots. When a friend of his told him about the cottage rental, or “the model,” as he refers to it in 1992, he flocked to the beach.

After hearing about White’s dilemma, in 1995, they hashed out a deal to subdivide the land that was then appraised at $6 million. The only concern that White had was how large of a house the Petrello’s would build; he did not want one of those McMansions on his land. Petrello assured White that they would erect a house about the size of “the model;” however, David Berg, the Petrello’s lawyer, confessed that because of the enormous size of their mansion in Texas, it was “silly” for anyone to believe they would build a modest sized home.

When the blueprints were first drawn up by architect, Francis Fleetwood, the house was estimated to be around 4,500 to 7,000 square feet; the final result was 18,000 square feet. By the time the first closing came around in late 2000, land prices had gone through the roof and the farm was being appraised at $32 million. The $2 million Petrello was going to pay for his 9.56 acres was barely going to cover the estate taxes. Due to this problem, plus the fact that the Petrello’s wanted a substantial sized house, not only the first, but the second closing was cancelled, to which Petrello responded with a lawsuit.

Since then, ten summers have gone by. The Petrello family received their plot for $2.1 million and the rest of the beach front land went to the Town of Southampton to develop on for $14 million; mere pennies compared to what the Whites could have gotten from the subdivision. But the heartache does not end here; Petrello is suing the White family for 10 years of aggravation and lawyers fees, which totals $4.3 million. Petrello also has a right-of-first refusal clause in the original contract that now gives him the right to the rest of the family’s property. Petrello’s plan of “grandeur” for his new Sagaponack getaway is to build a two story five-bedroom home with a pool and deck.

“If there’s a modern-day Satan, it’s Tony,” says Chandler Robinson, the builder who reinvaded the Petrello’s Houston home. “If you’re around him, you see it: he’s mean; he’s self-centered; he’s aggressive… On top of everything, he wants to hurt you.” Apparently, the Whites are not the only people Anthony Petrello has done damage to.

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