For the People

If the mayor of a tony Long Island village has his way, one of the most exclusive private clubs in the New York City area will become a muni
May 07, 2006

Over the lasthalf century, Deepdale Golf Club has been swallowed up in three greatcontroversies. The first was in 1955, just before its original course wascleaved by the Long Island Expressway and the club was moved from the villageof Lake Success to neighboring North Hills. A better ball tournament with a$45,000 Calcutta pool turned into a murky mess that involved an impostor, aringer and phony handicaps. The shenanigans outraged USGA executive directorJoseph Dey, who declared, "Consciously or unconsciously, the men whosupport these pools are using golf as a medium to prostitute golf." ¶Scandal number 2 unfolded that same year at the club's new home on thesprawling estate once owned by tycoon W.R. Grace. Though three of Grace'sgrandchildren had agreed to sell his beloved Tullaroan estate to Deepdale for$950,000, the fourth, Michael, refused to transfer his share or move out of the40-room Georgian mansion intended for the clubhouse.

In a lawsuitDeepdale's owners accused the young scion of trying to distract duffers withnoisy tractors, speeding cars, galloping horses, unleashed dogs, women inscanty swimsuits and actors "auditioning" for a Broadway musical. Thefeud ended in 1958, when Michael was evicted.

The figure at theheart of Deepdale's latest entanglement is North Hills mayor Marvin Natiss, a23-handicapper who wants to use powers of eminent domain to turn the eliteprivate course into an elite municipal course for dues-paying villageresidents. "Deepdale would be a wonderful amenity for the people of thevillage," he says, as if the club were a mint on a hotel-room pillow. Notthat Natiss's constituency lacks links (or much of anything else: The U.S.Census Bureau has judged North Hills to be one of the wealthiest communities inthe Northeast, with a per capita income of $100,093). There are 20 courseswithin five miles of the village and 51, including 11 public tracks, within 15miles.

The members ofDeepdale, of course, are outraged by the mayor's proposal. When he orderedenvironmental-impact statements and appraisals, they sued to head off a hostiletakeover. "It's an undisguised land grab that would set a staggeringprecedent and affect every golf club in America," says Theodore Mirvis, oneof the club's attorneys. "It's about stealing a golf club to increaseproperty values in the village. It's about greed and putter-envy."

Joseph Grundfest,a law professor at Stanford and one of the preeminent authorities on eminentdomain, views the standoff through a slightly different lens. "On one sideyou have the very rich," he says. "On the other, the filthy rich. It'sa kind of class struggle Karl Marx never anticipated."

Neither, perhaps,has the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark eminent-domain ruling last June, theSupremes voted 5-4 to uphold the right of the city of New London, Conn., todemolish homes in an aging neighborhood to make way for an urban redevelopmentzone. "The political leaders of New London were trying to address theeconomic distress that gripped the city after major employers had left theregion," Grundfest says. "But the People's Republic of North Hills hassomething altogether different in mind."

Deepdale membersbelieve that particular "something" goes against the intent of thecourt's decision. "To condemn a blighted property and develop it into ahospital or an orphanage--to do something for the public good--I couldunderstand," says club member John Wilson, a retired Wall Street trader."But the mayor is using eminent domain for private gain, not public use.The law is being perverted. There's nothing distressed in North Hills."

Snuggled on thetony Gold Coast of Long Island's North Shore, North Hills is a bedroomcommunity of 1,800 households about 20 miles from Manhattan. Most of the 4,500villagers live in gated enclaves; one is even called the Enclave. North Hillshas no firehouse, police department, library or school. (If there's a blaze ora disturbance, departments from neighboring towns are summoned.) It does havetwo golf courses. The membership of North Hills Country Club includes 60village residents, one of whom is the deputy mayor. Deepdale, which has about250 members, is not only more expensive (initiation: $100,000) but also moreexclusive. Only one of its members--Wilson--lives in North Hills.

During its79-year history Deepdale has counted Dwight Eisenhower, Baron Guy de Rothschildand the Duke of Windsor as members, and more recently has had on its rolls TikiBarber, Tom Brokaw, Sean Connery, Sidney Poitier and New York City mayorMichael Bloomberg. "None of our members are notorious," says Wilson,who never had to fill out a foursome with the most infamous Deepdaler, RichardNixon. "Maybe some are nefarious." Wilson adds, "Membership is byinvitation only."

The idea to havethe townsfolk snatch the course from the landed gentry was first floated byJohn Lentini, the previous mayor of North Hills. In 2002, shortly before hisdeath, Lentini said, "We believe our acquisition of the Deepdale Golf Clubwill be the crown jewel of our community and bring us a new level of NorthShore Gold Coast affluence."

At firstDeepdalers didn't take the talk seriously. "We figured it was toopreposterous," says Wilson. Then Natiss succeeded Lentini and the rhetoricstarted sounding like a policy statement. "As bizarre and surreal as itseemed," Wilson says, "we started to become very concerned."

Wilson is theforce behind the Coalition for Deepdale, a group that has waged a large-scalepublic relations campaign on behalf of the club. The alliance accuses Natiss ofcolluding with real estate developers, a charge that Natiss denies. Acondemnation, the coalition claims, would increase property taxes, not propertyvalues. "The plan to seize Deepdale is socialist!" Wilson says."It's Communist! It's Bolshevik!" Village mailboxes brim withanti-Natiss propaganda. "Even I have been invited to join the Coalition toBash the Mayor," says the mayor. "Obviously I haven't joined."

The VladimirLenin of North Hills has been a Republican for nearly 40 years. "I wasn'tlooking for trouble," Natiss says. "Really, I wasn't." He's apracticing lawyer and a former town judge with a good sense of humor and a badhip. "I don't pay attention to what I'm called by the millionaires andbillionaires of Deepdale," he says defiantly. "Stick and stones maybreak my bones, but names will never harm me."

Natiss claimsthat he hasn't decided whether to invoke the principle of eminent domain."I'm still gathering data," he says. "I've never said I wouldpursue this, yet the club has threatened me and backed me against the wall. I'man elected official. I will not be scared off or intimidated."

He bristles atthe notion of seizure. "This would have nothing to do with seizingproperty," says Natiss. "Eminent domain requires fair marketvalue." But Deepdale's value is a subject of considerable debate. Accordingto the club, the 175-acre property is worth more than $100 million. Natiss sayscounty assessors recently valued Deepdale at less than $13 million. "Ithink [the value is] somewhere in between," he says. "However, if theactual figure turns out to be $100 million, the village couldn't afford theacquisition."

For now, thetakeover has been tabled. When Wilson tried to raise the issue at the townmeeting in March, Natiss overruled him. Deepdale is not on the agenda for thismonth's confab either. "A condemnation may never happen," Natiss says."Still, in my reading of the law, it would be perfectly legal. IfDeepdale's members don't like the law or the evolution of the law, let themchange it."

Ironically, theoriginal Deepdale course in Lake Success was ravaged by public domain--threeholes were surrendered for the Long Island Expressway--and rescued by thatvillage's legal high jinks. In 1955 residents of Lake Success voted to purchasethe club at "a fair and reasonable" price and put the parcel on theopen market. The community then prevented the new buyer from subdividing theland into a housing development by rezoning the township and passing anordinance that forbade the removal of sod from local property. Reluctantly, thebuilder sold Old Deepdale to the village. It's now a municipal course.

The very rich battling the filthy rich, says oneprofessor, is a "KIND OF CLASS STRUGGLE KARL MARX NEVERANTICIPATED."

Says Natiss, "I DON'T PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT I'MCALLED BY THE MILLIONAIRES AND BILLIONAIRES OF DEEPDALE."

PHOTOPhotographs by David Bergman HOSTILETAKEOVER
North Hills, one of the wealthiest communities in the Northeast, might useeminent domain to claim Deepdale.
PHOTOPhotographs by David Bergman BATTLEGROUND
In the fight for Deepdale's fairways, Wilson (below left) at first didn't takeNatiss (below right) seriously.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by David Bergman[See Caption Above.] FIVE PHOTOSORMOND GIGLI/TIMEPIX (TOP) TACKYTACTICS
In the '50s dispute, women in swimsuits and process servers (below) were usedto harass golfers.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)