Judge rejects Vernon Hill's lawsuit, says Moorestown house worth $34M

A view of Villa Collina, the Vernon Hill estate on the east side of Moorestown, shows some of the many features that led the New Jersey Tax Court to estimate its value. Above it is South Valley School. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
A view of Villa Collina, the Vernon Hill estate on the east side of Moorestown, shows some of the many features that led the New Jersey Tax Court to estimate its value. Above it is South Valley School. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer) (File photograph)
Posted: February 08, 2013

With its cascading granite waterfalls, sculpture garden, and reflecting pools, banking mogul Vernon Hill's 55,000-square-foot mansion is over-the-top even for pricey Moorestown, says New Jersey's top tax court.

But Hill's "opulent" mansion on 44 acres - reportedly the largest private home in New Jersey - is far from overvalued for tax purposes, according to the court's chief judge.

In a ruling handed down last week, the presiding judge of New Jersey Tax Court rejected Hill's 2008 lawsuit asking him to cut in half the township's $21 million assessment.

Patrick DeAlmeida ruled instead that Hill's Villa Collina is worth $34 million - 39 percent more.

"The home is extravagant, its amenities extraordinary, and the improvements on the property are uniquely opulent," DeAlmeida wrote in his 29-page opinion, issued Jan. 29.

But his judgment does not mean that Hill and his wife, Shirley, will pay 39 percent more this year than the $394,000 in property tax they paid Moorestown last year.

Because the township did not file a counterclaim asking the judge to reset Villa Collina's assessment at $34 million, DeAlmeida upheld Moorestown's $21 million assessment, made in October 2007.

And Hill's attorney, Steven Irwin of West Orange, N.J., said Wednesday that Moorestown last year reassessed the estate at $17 million, or half the judge's determination.

Moorestown's assessor, Dennis DeKlerk, declined to comment this week on the $17 million figure, saying new reassessments will not be certified until Feb. 15.

Irwin called the outcome of the lawsuit a "draw," but said he nevertheless intended to appeal DeAlmeida's judgment.

DeAlmeida "made a fundamental error and confused 'value in exchange' for 'value in use,' " Irwin said. He meant that the judge had calculated the value of the Hills' property by its construction costs "rather than what they could sell it for."

"There is no value for this house if it were to go on the market," according to Irwin, a prominent assessment attorney. Philadelphia-area multimillionaires opt for the Pennsylvania suburbs, he said, and most East Coast rock stars and Wall Street wizards "choose to live close to New York."

"The whole theory of this case," he said, "is that the property was tremendously overbuilt for where it was situated."

Villa Collina, which means "Hill House," has its charms.

Begun in 2002 and expanded in 2006, the granite-clad, Italianate palazzo has 29,236 square feet of living space and incorporates a total of 55,543 square feet of improvements.

It "is of the highest quality construction and is designed to display opulence," DeAlmeida wrote in his opinion, which noted its two-story entrance foyer with marble floors and a black onyx fountain surrounded by a circular staircase.

The centerpiece is the "Lemon Room," vastly larger than most homes in Moorestown, which not only contains an array of lemon trees but looks out on the estate's sweeping gardens, waterfalls, and statuary.

DeAlmeida's order bars publication of the court's photos of Villa Collina or the verdict's detailed descriptions of its proportions and appointments, according to Irwin.

He said the Hills had not decided whether to proceed with pending lawsuits appealing their home's assessments for 2009 through 2012.

Thomas Coleman, Moorestown's former solicitor and its attorney in Hill v. Moorestown, said Wednesday that he was gratified by the verdict in what he called "an extremely important case."

"The home the Hills have isn't the same caliber of building materials we have in an everyday family home," said Coleman, "even in Moorestown," where the average listing for a home last month was $780,000. The median home sale price in December was $576,000, according to the listing service Trulia.

Coleman said he had not filed a counterclaim at trial asking the judge to declare Villa Collina's assessed value at $34 million because he was trying "just to defend what our assessors said it was worth."

In 1973, Hill founded Commerce Bank and grew it to 470 branches before it was sold in 2007 to the Canada-based TD Bank Financial Group for $8.5 billion.

Regulatory controversies swirled around Commerce and Hill before the sale, including allegations that he awarded lucrative contracts to family members. Forbes magazine reported that year that the bank had paid Shirley Hill, who owns the Mount Laurel design firm InterArch, "$50 million over the last decade to design and furnish Commerce branches."

InterArch recently acquired the former Acme Market in downtown Moorestown and is converting it into its headquarters.

Irwin defended the Hills' right to appeal their assessment, saying many in Moorestown will likely do the same in the weeks ahead.

"Rich people have the same rights as everyone else," said Irwin, describing Hill as a philanthropist who, when designing Villa Collina, "purposely downsized his house so as not to make it larger than the White House."

"I think that's a tribute to his patriotism."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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