Mehmet Oz scored a $50,000 annual tax break on his $3.1 million Montgomery County manor

Julia Terruso, Ryan W. Briggs and Jonathan Tamari
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — When Mehmet Oz bought a bucolic farmhouse in Montgomery County last year, he not only acquired property in the state where he’s running for Senate, he also scored a $50,000-a-year tax break.

While the purchase seemed designed to put to rest questions about Oz’s ties to the Keystone State that continue to dog his campaign, the large tax rebate could provide ammunition for Democrats seeking to paint Oz as a wealthy, out-of-touch carpetbagger from New Jersey. And while owning property may signal the celebrity doctor’s commitment to Pennsylvania, he’s still not living in the home — and it’s unclear when he will be.

The cardiothoracic surgeon and former daytime TV personality’s use of the tax incentive is totally legal and was in place decades before Oz purchased the property, according to local officials and public records.

A home seen through the woods is Senate candidate Mehmet Oz's property in Lower Moreland, Pennsylvania. (Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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“I inherited it,” Oz said in an interview Friday. “And I intend to preserve that land and not do anything that would hurt it.”

A $50,000 tax break: The tax incentive is part of a controversial state program designed to encourage the preservation of farm or forestland that overwhelmingly benefits wealthy landowners like Oz.

And while Oz says he’s simply awaiting renovations before he moves into his new home, there’s little sign of work at the property, and he continues to live at his in-laws’ home in the nearby borough of Bryn Athyn.

He and his wife, Lisa Lemole, purchased the $3.1 million farmstead in December 2021, weeks after he launched his Senate campaign. The forested, 34-acre property in Lower Moreland Township features a 7,300-square-foot, eight-bedroom manor house, according to deed records from Montgomery County.

The couple bought the property from the Academy of the New Church, the educational arm of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which acquired the parcel in 2017. Lemole’s family are prominent members of the church, a Swedenborgian denomination of Christianity based in Bryn Athyn.

The land has benefited for more than 30 years from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s “Clean and Green” tax incentive. That program is part of a wider initiative, known as Act 319, that encourages property owners to hold back land from development by entitling them to a more favorable property tax assessment. There are no income restrictions on the program, which has also been granted to about 140 other property owners across Montgomery County.

Under Act 319, the Lower Moreland property has long seen its nominal tax assessment heavily discounted in exchange for preservation of existing tree cover on the property. While Oz insists he “didn’t seek out” a tax break that both the church and prior owners had received, deed records show the couple filled out a transfer application for the perk.

In Oz’s Act 319 reapplication, dated March 2022, the couple attested that the entirety of the woodsy acreage would continue to be held as a “forest reserve” while under their ownership. In exchange, Oz saw more than $1 million dollars knocked off the $1.52 million assessed value of the property. That means the county considers a sprawling tract of land Oz paid millions to purchase to be worth just $447,930 for tax purposes — or just slightly above the median listing price for a home in Montgomery County.

The practical effect: Oz and Lemole’s annual tax bill, the bulk of which benefits the Lower Moreland School District, dropped from about $72,000 to just $21,473. (Oz signed the application as “Dr. Oz.”)

Oz’s campaign did not respond to specific questions about the tax credit.

“This is a property they have been hoping to buy for quite a while,” campaign spokesperson Brittany Yanick said. “It was a lengthy process, but they were thrilled it worked out.”

An agreement to not develop the land: But to critics, Oz and Lemole are emblematic of the flaws with Act 319, which was initially conceived of as a means of tax relief for struggling small-time farmers and timber workers. Together, the couple is worth at least $104 million, and likely far more, according to Senate financial disclosures. They have multimillion-dollar mansions in New Jersey and Palm Beach, among other valuable properties.

Richard Booker, a tax attorney who publicly opposed similar Act 319 deals during his tenure as a Republican commissioner in nearby Radnor Township, said these incentives deprive municipalities of potential tax revenue while offering few other benefits — particularly in cases like Oz’s, where the preserved open space remains off limits to the general public.

“I’m a conservative tax lawyer, and I’m for lower taxes and smaller government. But I don’t believe in these kinds of tax benefits for anyone,” he said. “They’re always unequal, and they never work.”

Booker said he doesn’t begrudge the wealthy for seeking out legitimate tax breaks. But he said he does begrudge the state for essentially offering them money for nothing.

“We’d be better off not giving out these tax breaks and just lowering taxes across the board. They’re just always a bad deal for the government, and they’re always a bad deal for taxpayers,” he said. “And I like Oz. I hope he wins.”

Joe Foster, a Montgomery County tax assessor and former chair of the county Democratic Party, said everything about Oz’s application to reenroll in the program appeared legitimate, so long as they preserved the forestland.

“This is all above board — and it’s totally legal,” Foster said. “The whole purpose behind (Act) 319 is to create open space — is to entice people to not develop it but rather maintain it as a separate property.”

However, public records show Oz had already agreed not to develop the land months before his application.

In a deed addendum between Oz and the Academy of the New Church, dated not long after the December 2021 sale, the candidate agreed to “not construct any improvement of structures” on the land, with the exception of fences or pathways. The same addendum also grants the nonprofit the right of first refusal for any future sale of the property, at the same sale price, should Oz ever decide to sell the land. (A treasurer for the Academy of the New Church declined to comment on the sale or stipulations in the deed.)

Booker said no-development clause in the deed shows the tax incentive is being exploited.

“The intent here was to induce (Oz) to not develop the land,” he said. “But he’d already agreed to that.”

Oz’s campaign said both the no-development clause and buy-back provision were meant to protect the church.

“It’s a beautiful property, and (the church) didn’t want the property developed in any way that would harm (it),” Yanick said.

Supporters of the program content that its value is implicit, as everyone benefits from the environmental benefits of preserved natural land, and the incentives encourage rotating owners to keep land undeveloped in the long term.

Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at the environmental group PennFuture, said that if agriculture or forest land is developed into strip malls or luxury homes, it could lead to increased land values and taxes, putting pressure on other nearby owners to sell.

“Although it is harder to quantify the dollar value of the public health and environmental benefits we all enjoy when the land is not developed, there is significant value in the reduced levels of sprawl and pollution, habitat protection for plant and animal species,” he added in an email, speaking generally about the program, not the specifics of Oz property.

Home needs renovations: It’s not clear when Oz, who has faced sharp political attacks over both his vast personal wealth and his ties to Pennsylvania, will move into the home. The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has said Oz’s move to Pennsylvania is about personal promotion, not any real commitment to the state.

Oz’s wife grew up in Bryn Athyn, where she still has dozens of family members. Oz relocated to Pennsylvania in late 2020 after his decades-long residency in New Jersey, moving into a property owned by his in-laws just weeks after Sen. Pat Toomey made clear his intent to retire.

The campaign insists “renovations are ongoing” at the farmstead but provided no specifics.

“The home has to continue undergoing extensive renovations due to the home’s aging structure,” Yanick said. “It’s a beautiful property, and the house has a lot of history, but it’s going to take time.”

However, on two recent afternoons, there were no cars in the driveway or signs of construction activity at the house. An Oz campaign sign was stuck in the grass near a rust-colored mailbox.

Asked if Oz had a target date to move in, Yanick said, “We are in the middle of a Senate campaign right now, so that takes up a lot of time, but as soon as it’s ready.”