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World & Nation

Libya’s not a welcome neighbor in New Jersey

This New York City suburb has seen its share of famous residents — Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Jessica Parker among them. But it is the one who has never been seen who commands the most attention: Moammar Kadafi, Libyan leader and lord of a multimillion-dollar mansion that flies Libya’s flag and sits next door to one very peeved Orthodox Jewish rabbi.

Rarely has the stone-walled structure, with expansive grounds, pond and swimming pool, been the placid retreat the Libyan government envisioned when it paid $1 million for it in 1982, six years before Libyan agents blew up Pan Am Flight 103.

The estate, called Thunder Rock, has been a flash point for years for local protests, most recently in 2009 when Kadafi lost a battle to erect his traveling Bedouin tent on the lawn during a U.S. visit. But never has Thunder Rock’s fate been as uncertain as now, with fresh State Department sanctions targeting Libyan property and a renewed uproar over the home’s tax-exempt status in the state with the country’s highest property taxes.

“This is a man who blows up airliners!” said the rabbi next door, Shmuley Boteach, who complains that the green Libyan flag flapping in the breeze is the first thing he sees each morning through his bedroom window. “I have a deep-seated loathing of tyranny, tyrants, dictators, people who brutalize their citizenry. And Kadafi hits the top of the list.”

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To be fair, a U.S. flag also flies from a pole outside Thunder Rock, and for all his complaining about the neighbors, the Los Angeles-born Boteach has been known to stir up controversy himself. The self-described relationship expert raised eyebrows in the Orthodox community for his close friendship with Michael Jackson when the pop star was facing allegations of child sex abuse, and for advice books such as “The Kosher Sutra” and “Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy.”

Even Boteach admits that his relentless drive to oust his neighbors has gained him a reputation as a nuisance among some local leaders, including some of his friends.

“It’s become a solitary battle,” lamented Boteach, who lost a round recently when a court dismissed a lawsuit he had filed against the Libyans. He alleged that they had damaged his property during renovations to Thunder Rock in advance of Kadafi’s expected 2009 stay. A court dismissed the lawsuit this year, upholding the Libyans’ claim to diplomatic immunity, according to Boteach and his attorney in the case, Eric Herschmann.

But this month, Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle III, galvanized by the latest State Department sanctions, said he had directed the city attorney to attempt to revoke the tax exemption Libya’s government has enjoyed for nearly 30 years, a step that some hope will drive the Libyans out of town.

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“The compound represents a disgraced regime that is no longer recognized by the international community,” said Huttle, complaining that Englewood has spent money on extra police and other security measures for Thunder Rock.

The order signed last month by President Obama “blocks all property” of the Libyan government. But a Treasury Department spokesman would not say how this might affect Thunder Rock. Past efforts by Englewood and New Jersey lawmakers to force Libya to at least pay taxes have failed, with courts ruling that the country enjoys a diplomatic standing that relieves it of tax burdens.

According to the latest Census Bureau information, the median annual tax bill of $6,579 paid by New Jersey residents is the country’s highest, and Bergen County, where Englewood is located, is one of the five highest-paying counties in the nation. The tax bill for Thunder Rock in 1982 was about $14,000. Last year, the property was assessed at $5.5 million, and Herschmann estimated the annual taxes would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“This is another universe when it comes to property taxes,” said one Englewood resident, who like most in town did not want to give a name when discussing the Libyan homeowners. In fact, in the years after they bought the place, the owners spent so little time at Thunder Rock that it fell into disrepair. That changed early in 2009 with the renovation project.

Surrounded by a low fence, the nearly 5-acre estate is clearly visible from the busy street, where the other homes range from Boteach’s similarly imposing structure to simple, suburban houses. The expansive lawns are neatly trimmed, and a white footbridge crosses the pond at the back of the home. The gray stone exterior and flagpoles give Thunder Rock a castle-like appearance. On a recent afternoon, all the curtains were drawn, and nobody responded to a ring at the front gate.

According to reports at the time of the sale, the mansion boasts 25 rooms and a swimming pool, and was intended mainly as a weekend getaway for the Libyan U.N. ambassador and his family.

Former Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, who pushed for years to oust the Libyans, acknowledged that problems at the compound mainly came from locals engaging in “criminal mischief,” such as spraying graffiti or protesting outside the mansion.

“They really keep to themselves. They’re not a nuisance,” the owner of a nearby business said of the owners, listed on property records as merely the government of Libya. “It’s the proximity to the neighbors, and the history. Nobody wants someone like that in their town.”

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If the Libyans are concerned about Thunder Rock, they’re not saying. Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador did not return a call, and the embassy in Washington did not respond to an e-mail.

When a Libyan U.N. representative came to see Boteach in the summer of 2009, during the battle over Kadafi’s plan to set up his tent, the rabbi refused to see him, dismissing him as the representative of a “terror government.”

Boteach hopes eventually to buy Thunder Rock himself and use it “for some very positive purpose,” such as a convalescent home for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. “I don’t lose enthusiasm,” he said of his so-far futile fight, “because it’s right next door to me.”

tina.susman@latimes.com


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