August 5, 1997 in Nation/World

High Roller Thinks He’s Above The Law?

Jim Fitzgerald Associated Press
 

This town is so wealthy it actually has a law that says you can’t land your helicopter in your yard. It also has a really rich guy with a big Sikorsky who says the law doesn’t apply to him.

Nelson Peltz, 55, chairman of Triarc Cos., bought a 106-acre estate known as High Winds in 1986 and put in a helipad. Soon he was commuting to his New York City office, 40 miles away, in a blue-and-white six-passenger chopper.

And while traffic-jammed commuters down on Interstate 684 may have gazed skyward with envy, some of Peltz’s neighbors put their hands over their ears in disgust.

“We had a barbecue here one afternoon,” said Richard Brown, the caretaker at the home of actor E.G. Marshall. “All of a sudden that big bird came in, and we all had to just absolutely shut up. You could not hear yourself talk. Half an hour later, a couple of cars drove up to it and again, everybody had to shut up as it took off.”

“When that thing goes, all the people around the whole area, their dishes vibrate on the hutches,” Brown said. “‘Hello, Nelson,’ we say. It’s whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp with those blades, faster and faster. Unbelievable.”

Marshall, who is 87 and may be best known as the crusading attorney in TV’s “The Defenders,” has been a leader of the fight against the chopper, complaining: “These people with money think they are entitled to anything they can buy, without respect for the law or their neighbors.”

Those neighbors include plenty of monied celebrities. Glenn Close, Michael Crichton, Carl Icahn, Chevy Chase and Ralph Lauren all live in Bedford, though none has taken any public part in the whirlybird war.

Marshall, a resident since the 1960s, pointed out that the town has a 1983 zoning ordinance banning aircraft takeoffs and landings in residential areas.

“If it was you, if it was me, they would have had a tractor-trailer down here, confiscated the helicopter and taken the pilot’s license away,” Brown said.

But it wasn’t you or me, it was Peltz, who is worth $620 million and who runs such businesses as Arby’s and Snapple. He claimed that High Winds was exempt from the law because when DeWitt Wallace, founder of Reader’s Digest, owned the place, he sometimes landed his private plane on the grounds. That meant, Peltz claimed, that his right to fly in and out was grandfathered in as a “pre-existing non-conforming use.”

Peltz may have bought the house on the assumption it came with flying rights. Sally Siano, the real estate agent who made the $6 million sale (“one of the finest estates in the Northeast … the views are just magnificent … a jewel of a stone house”), said there was a hangar on the grounds, and it became a selling point.

There was also a rose garden, which held the ashes of Wallace and his wife, Lila. Peltz is said to have torn it up to make a playground for his kids.

None of that is visible from countrified Byram Lake Road, though passers-by do get to see rolling lawns, a long driveway, a high metal gate and a stone wall with “High Winds” etched into it.

When Peltz refused to abandon his chopper, apparently unwilling to give up a 20-minute commute that would otherwise take an hour or so, the town sued him and his wife, Claudia, a former model.

Town attorney Joel Sachs said that even if the estate had once been used for aircraft, there was a long period of time when it was not, which rebuts any grandfather claim. According to “American Dreamers,” a biography of the Wallaces by Peter Canning, Wallace gave up his Fairchild monoplane in 1940 at the behest of his wife.

“Once you stop doing it for six months or more, you’ve lost the right,” Sachs said.

In his response, Peltz added a variety of defenses, claiming that helicopter use can be regulated only by the Federal Aviation Administration; that the noise does not affect residents any more than other air traffic over Bedford; that the town is taking his property without just compensation; and that landing a helicopter is not land use but a means of transportation and therefore not subject to zoning.

The case probably won’t go to trial before next year. A judge has given lawyers until December to exchange information.


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