When Mehmet Oz bought a quaint farmhouse in Montgomery County last year, not only did he buy property in the state where he is running for Senate, he also raked in a $50,000 a year tax break.
While the purchase seemed designed to settle questions about Oz’s ties to the Keystone State that continue to haunt his campaign, the big tax refund could provide ammunition for Democrats trying to portray Oz as a wealthy, aloof New Jersey carpet digger. And while owning property could signal the famous doctor’s commitment to Pennsylvania, he still doesn’t live in the home — and it’s unclear when he will.
According to local officials and public records, the cardiothoracic surgeon and former TV personality’s use of the tax incentive is perfectly legal and was in place decades before Oz bought the property.
“I inherited it,” Oz said in an interview on Friday. “And I intend to preserve this country and do nothing that would harm it.”
The tax incentive is part of a controversial government program to encourage farm or forest conservation that largely benefits wealthy landowners like Oz.
And while Oz says he’s just awaiting renovations before moving into his new home, there’s little sign of work on the property, and he continues to live at his in-laws’ house in the nearby Bryn Athyn neighborhood.
He and his wife Lisa Lemole bought the $3.1 million homestead in December 2021, weeks after he launched his Senate campaign. The wooded 34-acre lot in Lower Moreland Township features a 7,300-square-foot, eight-bedroom mansion, according to Montgomery County charter records.
The couple bought the property from the Academy of the New Church, the educational branch of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which acquired the property in 2017. Lemole’s family are prominent members of the Church, a Swedenborgian denomination of Christianity based in Bryn Athyn.
The country has benefited from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Clean and Green tax incentive for more than 30 years. This program is part of a broader initiative known as Act 319, which encourages property owners to withhold properties from development by being entitled to a more favorable property tax assessment. There are no income restrictions on the program, which has also been granted to approximately 140 other homeowners throughout Montgomery County.
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Under Act 319, the Lower Moreland property’s notional tax assessment has long been greatly reduced in exchange for preserving the existing tree cover on the property. While Oz insists he “did not seek” a tax benefit that both the church and the previous owners obtained, documentary records show the couple completed a transfer application for the benefit.
In Oz’s re-filing under Law 319 in March 2022, the couple confirmed that the entire wooded acreage would continue to be held as a “forest reserve” for as long as they owned it. In return, Oz saw more than $1 million deducted from the property’s estimated $1.52 million worth. That means the county’s expansive piece of land that Oz paid millions to buy is worth just $447,930 for tax purposes — or just slightly more than the average listing price for a Montgomery County home.
The practical effect: Oz and Lemole’s annual tax bill, most 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 purchase for some time,” said campaign spokeswoman Brittany Yanick. “It was a lengthy process, but they were thrilled it worked out.”
But for critics, Oz and Lemole are a symbol of the shortcomings of Act 319, originally intended as a means of tax breaks for struggling smallholders and lumberjacks. Together, the couple is worth at least $104 million, and likely far more, according to Senate financial statements. They have multi-million dollar mansions in New Jersey and Palm Beach, among other valuable properties.
Richard Booker, a tax attorney who publicly opposed similar deals under Act 319 during his tenure as Republican commissioner in nearby Radnor Municipality, said these incentives would deprive municipalities of potential tax revenue while offering few other benefits — notably in cases like that of Oz, where the surviving open space remains off-limits to the general public.
“I’m a conservative tax advocate, and I’m for lower taxes and a smaller state. But I don’t believe in that kind of tax benefit for anyone,” he said. “They are always uneven and never work.”
Booker said he doesn’t begrudge the rich looking for legitimate tax breaks. But he said he begrudged the state for essentially giving them money for free.
“We would be better off not giving those tax breaks and just cutting taxes across the board. They’re just always bad business for government and they’re always bad business for taxpayers,” he said. “And I like Oz. I hope he wins.”
Joe Foster, a Montgomery County tax advisor and former chairman of the county’s Democratic Party, said that everything about Oz’s request for reinstatement was legitimate as long as they preserved the woodland.
“That’s all fine — and it’s perfectly legal,” Foster said. “The whole purpose behind it [Act] 319 is intended to create free space – to entice people not to develop it but to keep it as separate property.”
However, public records show that Oz had agreed not to develop the land months before he applied.
In a deed of endorsement between Oz and the Academy of the New Church, dated not long after the December 2021 sale, the candidate agreed not to build “any improvement of structures” on the land, except for fences or pathways. The same addendum also grants the nonprofit the right of first refusal on any future sale of the property at the same sale price, should Oz ever decide to sell the property. (An Academy of the New Church treasurer declined to comment on the sale or the provisions of the deed.)
Booker said the no-development clause in the deed shows that the tax incentive is simply being abused.
“The intent here was to induce [Oz] not developing the country,” he said. “But he had already agreed to that.”
Oz’s campaign said both the no-development clause and the buyback clause were intended to protect the church.
“It is a beautiful property, and [the church] did not want the property to be developed in any way that would harm [it]’ Yanick said.
Proponents of the program argue that its value is implicit, as all benefit from the environmental benefits of protected natural spaces and the incentives encourage changing owners to leave land undeveloped over the long term.
Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at environmental group PennFuture, said developing land or forested land into malls or luxury homes could lead to higher property values and taxes, and put pressure on other nearby owners to sell.
“Although it is more difficult to quantify the dollar value of the public health and environmental benefits we all enjoy when the land is undeveloped, there is significant value in reduced urban sprawl and pollution, and protection of plant and animal habitats. and Animal Species,” he added in an email, speaking in general terms about the program rather than the specifics of the Oz property.
It’s not clear when Oz, who has faced harsh political attacks for his vast personal wealth and ties to Pennsylvania, will move into the home. The Democratic candidate, Lt. gov. John Fetterman has argued that Oz’s move to Pennsylvania is about personal promotion, not a real obligation to the state.
Oz’s wife grew up in Bryn Athyn, where she has dozens of family members. Oz relocated to Pennsylvania in late 2020 after decades in New Jersey, relocating to his in-laws’ estate just weeks after Senator Pat Toomey announced his intention to retire.
The campaign insists “renovations are underway” at the homestead, but gave no details.
“The home continues to require extensive renovations due to the aging structure of the home,” Yanick said. “It’s a beautiful property and the house has a lot of history, but it will take time.”
However, on two recent afternoons, there have been no cars in the driveway or signs of construction on the house. An Oz campaign sign was taped to the grass by a rust-colored mailbox.
When asked if Oz had a target move-in date, Yanick said, “We’re right in the middle of a Senate campaign right now, so that’s taking a lot of time, but once the time comes.”