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Splitting heirs: The Villa della Sirena is the site of a prize fight.
Splitting heirs: The Villa della Sirena is the site of a prize fight.
c. stiles

Haunted House

Part of the appeal of 999 Riviera Isle is privacy. Outsiders can hardly see this vast villa from the road — even if they manage to get past the security gate that lies a block south of the street's intersection with Las Olas. That's because there's another, more imposing gate between two pillars at the property line. Through the wrought-iron bars and the low-hanging palm-tree leaves, one can barely make out the salmon-colored façade.

The Villa della Sirena (Villa of the siren in Italian) goes to the southernmost tip of a finger of land that adjoins the Intracoastal Waterway, providing a panoramic vantage point for the arcade that surrounds this marble-floored, 9,000-square-foot home, which curves along 400-plus feet of waterfront.

But to gain a real appreciation for the intrigue that surrounds this exclusive address, check the Broward County Property Appraiser website, where 999 Riviera Isle has a listed value of nearly $6.3 million. That figure is current for 2007. So it's a shock to see the "sales history" column on the very same page. It says the property sold that same year for just $3 million.

Is the South Florida real estate market so bleak that someone would dump one of Fort Lauderdale' s most valuable properties for less than half its assessed value? Or are there forces at work here other than the economy?

It depends on whom you talk to.

Asked for his take of the land deal, Fort Lauderdale real estate attorney Harold Bofshever's initial reaction was, "Something like that doesn't smell right." By the same token, Bofshever says he's never seen a real estate market as erratic as the current one, and after he hears that the deal had other components — an adjacent piece of property and home furnishings — that raised the combined sale price to more than $7 million, he deems it "not unreasonable." Still, he mused that it looks enough like a sweetheart deal, potentially, to arouse the interest of regulatory agencies.

John Chesler, a coordinator for the appraiser's real property division, is more skeptical. "No point lot near Las Olas would ever sell for $3 million or less," he says.

And at least one party with a stake in the deal is crying foul. Mary Ann Mc­Caleb, girlfriend of the property's deceased owner, Robert Williamson, has sued the estate in part because the property's low sale price means she gets a smaller cut.

This tranquil piece of Fort Lauderdale, one of the city's most elegant homes, is now the setting for a battle royal. The dead man's girlfriend is clashing with the dead man's daughter, who controls the estate, even as the property's buyer prepares for legal combat with the county appraiser. In the rarefied world of mysterious, seven-figure land deals, there are no sympathetic characters — except, perhaps, the taxpayers at whose expense this mess must be given a neat, legal resolution.

Robert Williamson dropped out of ninth grade in the 1930s, then enlisted in the Army in the 1940s. Shortly after, he invested, shrewdly, in the petrol business. By the 1980s, he had cruised to multimillionaire status — his Royal Petroleum Inc. was one of the nation's leading distributors of Texaco gasoline. He died last May at age 83.

McCaleb lived with Williamson, who was some three decades her senior, at the Villa della Sirena for nearly seven years. The mansion was, she says, "his most prized possession." In a June 2005 written statement, Williamson told his future heirs that a tax assessor placed his land's value at $15 million to $20 million. Since he doesn't cite the name of the assessor, it isn't possible to verify this estimate.

McCaleb remembers how Williamson had annual meetings with Joe Zdanowicz, the real property manager for the county appraiser. "He said, 'Bob, you have the best property in the city. It's worth $10 million,' " McCaleb recalls. Zdanowicz, who is recently retired, did not return messages left at his home.

Williamson's daughter, Barbara, was named executor of the estate. In August, she placed the property on the market for $7.75 million — a price that was "far below market value," according to a petition in McCaleb's suit against the estate. Neither McCaleb nor her attorney, Charles Lichtman, would elaborate as to what might have led Barbara Williamson to list the property at a low figure, especially considering she is also a beneficiary in the will and as such would stand to lose money from a below-market sale.

Barbara Williamson did not return numerous calls seeking comment, but her Fort Lauderdale attorney, C. Glenn Leonard, says that the purchase price reflects accurately the appraisal it received from the local real estate appraisal firm Meacham and Associates. Mike Meacham said he was not free to share that figure with New Times.

Whether Williamson mismanaged the property sale or not, it is apparent that she refused to honor certain aspects of her father's will that related to McCaleb. For instance, McCaleb was to be allowed to live in the house for a year after Robert Williamson's death when in fact she was thrown out in August 2007, three months after his death, in anticipation of the sale. Also, McCaleb, a licensed real estate agent, was to be the agent on the sale of the home, receiving a commission of 3 percent. In fact, the estate refused Mc­Caleb that lucrative assignment and gave the sale instead to Intercoastal Realty, which collected 5.5 percent on the sale.

"Everything that he loved," McCaleb contends, "she wants to destroy — including me."

As her case inches through Broward courts, McCaleb will have to scrape by on her other prizes from the Williamson estate: her former boyfriend's 2005 Bentley, plus a 110-foot yacht, which she reportedly sold for $7.5 million.

Regulatory agencies at the county, state, and federal levels may be less interested in McCaleb's plight than in the peculiar structure of this transaction. For instance, how did the buyer, Jerry O. Johnson, a real estate magnate from Wyoming, score a $6 million-plus piece of property for $3 million?

The county's conclusion: He didn't. "I reviewed this [sale] with one of our deed experts," says Chesler, coordinator for the county appraiser's office's real property division. "And we believe the deed was understamped, that it did sell for more than $3 million."

The term understamped refers to the documentary stamp tax, which is paid to the state by the seller at a rate of 0.7 percent of the sale price.

Understamping is the practice through which the seller and buyer agree to include home furnishings in the real estate deal, then embellish their value. Since those furnishings are recorded as "personal property," they are not subject to the documentary stamp tax, thereby allowing the seller to curb that expense. And from the buyer's standpoint, the furnishings are not recorded as part of the sale price listed for tax purposes. The practice lowers the sales price, thereby improving the buyer's position to challenge the valuation he receives the next year from the county. If he succeeds, he will pay less in annual property taxes.

In the Villa della Sirena deal, it's apparent that roughly $1.4 million was attributed to the furnishings, the value of which Mc­Caleb challenges in her suit. She cites a list she received from the estate trustees that placed the value of the home's furnishings at just $7,000.

Leonard, attorney for the estate, says that the furnishings were professionally assessed and that with an estate this size, the IRS will also take a careful look at what is claimed as personal property. The estate's claims are, he says, " defensible."

Andrew Mann, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represented the buyer, denies that the property was understamped. Rather, his client, Johnson, "paid what he felt the property was worth." The 30-year-old home's value was diminished, Mann says, by the fact that it would need costly improvements, such as a new roof, which is currently under construction.

In addition, Mann points out that his client bought an adjacent property owned by Williamson for $2.75 million and that one must add these together — along with the $1 million-plus in personal property — to arrive at the real sale price, which is recorded as $7,150,250 in the Multiple Listing Service database used by real estate agents.

Even that figure, however, is significantly lower than the values assessed by the county, which places the worth of the two parcels at $7.5 million. What's more, the county's assessments are not meant to gauge true market value so much establish a minimum of its worth. Add the $1.4 million that was attributed to personal property and a conservatively assessed package of properties and furnishings worth nearly $9 million sold for just over $7 million.

Ultimately, it is up to the government to decide whether it's worth a closer look. Although he suspects an understamping or an "underreporting," Chesler concedes that his agency would not investigate the matter — that's up to the state Department of Revenue. But the state may not have the incentive. There's no guarantee the state will recover unpaid taxes, much less that those will be larger than the expense of conducting an investigation.

This quandary has bothered Pompano Beach Rep. Jack Seiler, who is considering drafting legislation to address it. "This happens a lot, from what we're hearing," he says. And there's no simple solution.

"I've been trying to get the Department of Revenue to find out whether we need to actually pass legislation or we need for them to enforce the legislation that's on the books."

But Seiler admits that, given the state's current dire financial straits, haggling over the documentary stamp tax amounts to being penny-wise and pound-foolish, another factor that would seem to favor real estate magnates with clever attorneys.

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