The Attorney General of the State of New York has officially received two letters raising issues of improprieties of the Homeland Foundation’s stewardship of the Chauncey Stillman inheritance. One letter was sent by one of Mr. Stillman’s descendants. The other was sent by this paper.
As previous articles in this paper have pointed out, the Homeland Foundation’s directors made generous gifts to third party charities from principal, thereby reducing the principal left to pay for the preservation and maintenance of Wethersfield, his estate on Pugsley Hill Road, in the town of Stanford. Mr. Stillman’s will specified that the reason why the foundation was given his residuary estate was to preserve and maintain Wethersfield.
As the community has been learning over the past few months, the foundation is now short of funds. It attempted to have the property taken off the tax rolls, an attempt that went nowhere. The community has been hearing stories as to how funds for maintenance and replacements have been cut.
If you start with a portfolio of $34 million in 2006, how do you turn that portfolio into $15.8 million in the space of five years when the first duty of fiduciaries is to preserve the capital entrusted to their care? That duty is succinctly spelled out in the Estate, Powers and Trust Law of New York and was also spelled out in the will of Chauncey Stillman.
In his will Mr. Stillman gave the residuary of his estate to Homeland “for the purposes of maintaining, conserving and operating Wethersfield House (including its contents)….” He went on to state that if income from the Fund was insufficient to pay for the upkeep of the estate, to then “use so much of principal of such Fund as shall not exceed an amount equal to three (3%) (later, by codicil, increased to 5%) of the principal of such Fund….”
The death of E. Lisk Wyckoff in November 2011 was occasion to look into how Mr. Wyckoff managed the affairs of the Homeland Foundation, the owner of the Wethersfield estate. This is the third in a series of articles on the Homeland Foundation.
From what we know of the Homeland Foundation from the documents that have been made public, the foundation is now severely limited in its ability to carry out the terms of its instructions as set forth in the last will and testament of Chauncey Stillman. That will made it clear that Wethersfield House and its grounds and the adjoining farmland were to be preserved and operated in the same manner as it was during the last year of Mr. Stillman’s life. To give his trustees the wherewithal to realize those wishes, Mr. Stillman left his entire estate to the foundation with instructions that the capital was not to be diminished. That capital was estimated at $100 million (including the value of the land, house and its contents) when he died in 1989. It is now less than half that amount.
The Homeland Foundation, the private charitable foundation created by the late Chauncey Stillman that owns the Wethersfield estate, is claiming it is exempt from local real estate taxes. A press release sent out last week asserts that “as a not-for-profit foundation it is not required to pay local taxes.”
The press release says it is applying to have the property removed from the tax roll in the towns of Amenia and Stanfordville and in the school districts of Pine Plains and Webutuck. The release says the foundation has paid “millions of dollars in taxes” and that it now pays an estimated $180,000 in local property taxes.
Steven Habiague, a lawyer from Poughquag, appeared before the Stanford town board on March 13 to pursue this application. He was referred to the town assessor, Stephen Gotovich. Gotovich said he has not had sufficient opportunity to review the application and was therefore unable to comment on it. Ron Gozzoli, assessor in Amenia, commented that status does not exempt property from taxation. There has to be a tax-exempt use. The use has to be religious, educational or charitable.
The Homeland Foundation, owner of Wethersfield, the estate of the late Chauncey Stillman, lost its president and senior trustee. The New York Times carried an obituary on Sunday reporting E. Lisk Wyckoff, Jr. died on November 26. He was known to many in the community for the June garden party the Foundation hosted as a benefit for the Bard Music Festival, of which the Foundation was a patron. When the weather was inauspicious, the party was given in the carriage house that housed Mr. Stillman’s collection of period horse-drawn vehicles.
Mr. Wyckoff had been Chauncey Stillman’s attorney, executor and trustee. He left the day-to-day management of the estate to others, but took an active responsibility for simplifying the operation, removing all the farm animals, retaining only a few driving horses.
According to the foundation office, Elizabeth Wyckoff, Mr. Wyckoff’s widow, was elected by the trustees to fill the position of chairman at a meeting held last week.
The staff at Wethersfield said they learned of the death from the NY Times obituary.