“Get ready for a fucking war,” Bill Fugazy told Douglas Durst on the phone three weeks ago.
The two power brokers and neighbors in Pine Plains, N.Y. had started the conversation working out a few quotidian border disputes. Mr. Fugazy, the 79-year-old former limousine magnate, had been hitting golf balls off a private tee on his sprawling weekend retreat in Pine Plains, N.Y., a ruraltownin Dutchess County about two hours’ drive north of New York City; the balls had been falling in Mr. Durst’s adjoining property. During the call, Mr. Fugazy agreed to take responsibility for any injuries caused by the golf balls.
But the conversation escalated when Mr. Durst got to the real reason for his call: He plans to build almost 1,000 homes on his Pine Plains property, a 2,000-acre estate that he bought last year from the late soft-ice-cream mogul, Tom Carvel. It was more than just a courtesy call to a neighbor. Bill Fugazy is a man who, if properly motivated, could make Mr. Durst’s job difficult. His connections run so deep, after all, that President Bill Clinton granted him a pardon after Mr. Fugazy pled guilty in 1997 to perjury charges stemming from accusations that he hid financial assets during a bankruptcy proceeding.
Laying down his ultimatum to Mr. Durst, the scion of the powerful real-estate clan and developer of the Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square, Mr. Fugazy fired the first shot in a dispute that promises to bring a Manhattan-style development brawl to a sleepy town in upstate New York.
Either Mr. Durst must drastically scale back his plans voluntarily, or Mr. Fugazy will initiate a full-scale legal assault to bring him to heel.
Mr. Durst, for his part, politely sidestepped Mr. Fugazy’s comment about a “war,” believing him to be misinformed as to the nature of his development plans for the town.
“I was sure that we were being respectful and reasonable,” Mr. Durst said in a phone interview, “so I didn’t think there was any reason to get into a war.”
The 2,000-acre property that Mr. Durst purchased from the Carvel estate is largely undeveloped. Over the course of the next 10 years, Mr. Durst wants to build 975 houses of varying sizes on the land, in addition to an expanded golf course, tennis courts and an equestrian center, among other projects. The town of Pine Plains, a 90-mile drive north of the city on the Taconic Parkway, currently has about 1,100 homes within its borders, which would make Mr. Durst’s development project by far the biggest in the community’s history.
Cognizant of that fact, Mr. Durst is working closely with town officials and environmental consultants to minimize the impact on the area.
“This isn’t something we can just do,” he said. “We have to get it approved. There’s plenty of opportunity to get people to talk against it or support it.”
So far, many Pine Plains locals-the town supervisor included-are guardedly optimistic about Mr. Durst’s plans.
“It could almost double the size of the town, so of course we’re interested in what’s going on,” said the town supervisor, Gregg Pulver. “Does the size necessarily make it bad or good? No. We’re in the fact-finding process, and it’s going to get a very hard look by a very large number of people.”
Nevertheless, the sheer numbers involved are making some people nervous, chief among them Mr. Fugazy.
This issue has particular relevance to him, not only because his 25-acre retreat directly abuts the Carvel estate, but because Mr. Fugazy played a large part in putting the town-and more to the point, its golf course-on the map. In the late 1960′s, Tom Carvel asked Mr. Fugazy-who was on Carvel’s board of directors-to help him develop what would become the Carvel Country Club. Mr. Fugazy accepted and brought many of his famous friends up to the links. Until their deaths, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby played countless rounds with Mr. Fugazy, and today the course is a personal favorite of Rudy Giuliani, George Steinbrenner and Lee Iacocca-all of whom Mr. Fugazy calls his close friends.
So when it became apparent that Mr. Durst’s project was inching toward reality, many locals approached Mr. Fugazy in hopes of blunting the developer’s advance.
“I go into the drug store and it’s ‘You gonna get involved, Mr. Fugazy? You gonna help us fight this?’” Mr. Fugazy said, recalling the conversations he started having about three weeks ago. “Finally several of the community people said to me, ‘Would you step in here? We know you got the contacts to battle [Durst].’”
To many New Yorkers, the prospect of Mr. Fugazy becoming some kind of Jane Jacobs figure will have its humorous side. The former limousine magnate is now the chairman of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO), an umbrella organization for ethnic groups. But he was also a major fund-raiser for his friend, Mr. Giuliani, but Mr. Fugazy is not shy about touting his friendships with a staggering number of past and present rainmakers in the often-interconnected worlds of business, politics, entertainment and nonprofit advocacy. Nearly every inch of his office-couches included-is covered with pictures of Mr. Fugazy mugging with the likes of Ronald Reagan, George Pataki, Cardinal John O’Connor, Yogi Berra, Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Johnny Carson and David Dinkins.
During a recent interview with The Observer , Mr. Fugazy broke off to have a chat with Alex Yemenidjian, in which Mr. Fugazy spoke to the MGM chairman in a tone reserved for longtime friends. After getting Mr. Yemenidjian to agree to look at a script that a distant acquaintance of Mr. Fugazy’s had asked him to pass along, Mr. Fugazy said into the phone, “You’re such a sweet, lovable, adorable person-I miss you. Come on in, we’ll have some fun.”
Mr. Durst, 59, is the third-generation inheritor of one of New York City’s oldest development empires. “Along with the Tishmans, the Rudins and a few others, the Dursts constitute the ancient tribal order of New York real estate-the Jewish families who began buying buildings at the dawn of the 20th century,” wrote The New York Times Magazine in an October 2002 profile of the family.
He doesn’t make headlines often-that misfortune is reserved for his brother, Robert, who stands accused of murdering his next-door neighbor in late September 2001 and then dismembering the body.
It was the end of a long trail for Robert, who never showed much of an inclination to carry on the family business. So when Mr. Durst’s father, Seymour, died in the mid-90′s, it was Douglas Durst who took control of almost five million square feet of office space. Building upon that, and working to realize his father’s dashed dreams of erecting major skyscrapers in the Times Square area, Mr. Durst completed, four years ago, one of the most high-profile commercial projects in some time: the 48-story Condé Nast tower at Broadway and 42nd Street. What’s more, Mr. Durst recently won approval to erect an even larger skyscraper almost right next-door: a 57-story tower that will become the New York headquarters of the newly fattened Bank of America-which, like Condé Nast, was one of the country’s most lusted-after commercial tenants.
Now Mr. Durst wants to make his mark in Dutchess County. The town of Pine Plains-where roughly 80 percent of the development will take place; the rest is slated for the neighboring village of Milan-is a one-traffic-light community of about 2,400 residents. Horse and dairy farms abound, as do vast expanses of untouched wilderness. The town has one pharmacy, one bank and a relatively large smattering of higher-end restaurants-supported largely by the better-off out-of-towners like Mr. Fugazy, who spends weekends in the town.
Mr. Durst said the idea of doing a development project outside New York was one that had appealed to him for a long time, and that the land’s proximity to such a major highway was one of its main attractions. He also noted that Tom Carvel himself had earmarked part of his estate for a large-scale development, but Carvel never brought it to fruition.
What he did bring off, however, is the draw that continues to make the area a destination today: the Carvel Country Club. Mr. Durst, who bought that club’s golf course along with the rest of the land, plans to revamp many of the aging greens and add an additional nine holes, bringing the total to 27. Toward that end, he has hired Landmark National, a developer of several top-rated golf-oriented communities. Concurrent with that, Mr. Durst aims to start building clusters of smaller attached houses in addition to freestanding three- and four- bedroom units, spaced around the 2,000 acres. Amenities like the tennis courts, fitness centers and equestrian center would follow soon thereafter.
Town officials had their first of several meetings with the Durst camp about four months ago, but Mr. Fugazy only got wind of his plans from some worried locals about three weeks ago. Approximately one week after that, Mr. Fugazy got an unexpected call from the very man he had been hearing so much about recently: Mr. Durst.
According to both Mr. Fugazy and Mr. Durst, the conversation started out pleasantly enough. There was the golf ball issue; then, Mr. Durst’s mistaken impression that Mr. Fugazy had been riding horses on Durst property (it turned out to have been some other neighbors). Finally, the two agreed to meet about two weeks later in Manhattan for lunch. (The lunch has since been postponed.)
“He’s a neighbor,” Mr. Durst said, “and rather than have him upset over some small issues, I wanted to tell him what we wanted to do with the project, and how it would be an enhancement to his property and not adversely affect him.”
But the talk soon became somewhat confrontational. At its most heated, Mr. Fugazy said he told Mr. Durst, “I don’t know what you’re doing up there, but you’re making a lot of enemies …. Why are you doing it in this fashion?”
According to Mr. Fugazy, Mr. Durst responded, “Economics.”
To which Mr. Fugazy said, “Well, if that’s it, get ready for a fucking war.” He later added, “And by the way, you’d have no goddamn golf course except for me. I was the one who brought the Arnold Palmers and the Bob Hopes to kick it off.”
Mr. Durst declined to be pulled into a detailed postmortem of his discussion with Mr. Fugazy, but it was clear he believed that Mr. Fugazy has been misled by some reactionary elements in Pine Plains.
“We’re trying to work with everybody so that we do something that doesn’t get too many people upset,” said Mr. Durst. “But obviously, some people get upset no matter what you do.”
The money motive aside, it will be hard to make a case that Mr. Durst is giving short shrift to environmental concerns. Before he can break ground on any of his projects, he must submit to an exhaustive environmental-review process-one that will take into consideration everything from environmental impacts to quality-of-life issues.
“The flora, the fauna, the waters, the character-of-community issues, the visual impact, the economy-all those issues are going to be studied by my first and specialist sub-consultants,” said Matthew Rudikoff of Matthew D. Rudikoff Associates Inc., the environmental and planning consulting firm that Mr. Durst hired to guide his application through the review process.
Although Mr. Rudikoff is working for Mr. Durst in this instance, his firm is often the one that communities like Pine Plains hire in order to make their own reviews of projects like Mr. Durst’s. Mr. Rudikoff has, in fact, worked with Pines Plains officials in the past on unrelated matters. He said that very fact should help insulate him from criticism of bias.
“I’m not going to jeopardize my career as a respected and objective environmental professional,” he said. “That’s why they retained me: They wanted that stature and reputation, which is above that kind of slanted analysis.”
In the near future, Pine Plains residents and town officials will have the opportunity to scrutinize Mr. Durst’s applications.
“It’s been brought to us as conceptual thing,” said Ed Casazza, chairman of the town’s planning board. “We haven’t seen a piece of paper; this is very preliminary. Whether the town can sustain it or not, I have no idea at this point.”