Dealing 'New Jersey style'

A determined developer, a bruising land battle

Salvatore J. Cangiano enjoys a reputation as a shrewd land speculator and developer, one who isn’t shy about pressing his ownership rights through litigation — “I’m very competitive” — or, perhaps, just by sheer force of will. And pretty much all those descriptors were on display in the rough-and-tumble struggle that ended with him in possession of Wheatland Farms in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Consider this: As Cangiano prepared to go to settlement on the purchase of the spectacular 549-acre property in spring 2005, according to court records, he was unknowingly recorded in a conversation discussing his concerns about contractual obligations the sellers had made, including an obligation to host weddings at the Wheatland Manor House.

“Hey, anybody gives me a hard time, I go there and lock the buildings. I’ll put everybody off the property. I deal New Jersey style. I’ll just lock everybody out. Nobody is allowed here. Go sue me.”

When the Wheatland deal crumbled and dissolved into litigation, Cangiano was asked about the conversation under oath: “I don’t know what ‘New Jersey style’ means. I really don’t know what that means. I deal honestly, morally, and ethically. That’s how I deal. I hope everybody else would.”

Recently, in an interview, Cangiano laughed when asked about the conversation saying: “That was a levity.” Just two guys joking around, he explained.

However, when Cangiano’s attorney asked Ava Abramowitz, the former co-owner of Wheatland Farms, what she understood “New Jersey style” to mean, she testified: “Ask Jimmy Hoffa what ‘New Jersey style’ means. We were petrified. We did not know how to handle this situation.”

“Are you saying you thought Mr. Cangiano was threatening to kill you or your husband?” Cangiano’s attorney asked.

“No,” she replied. “I am not saying that at all. I’m just saying I don’t even think of New Jersey style. He’s a man who does.”

Cangiano’s fight to take possession of Wheatland Farms finally ended in 2007, following a nasty two-year court battle in which he was accused of fraud and conspiracy by Abramowitz and her husband, Neil Rackham. Ultimately, just hours before going to trial, the two sides settled for the same terms as the original contract: $20 million for the 549-acre site. He paid all cash; no mortgage, no loans. Several clerks in the Loudoun County courthouse refer to the Wheatland litigation as the largest civil file they have in storage. It runs tens of thousands of pages crammed into 17 large, accordion-style folders, which when stacked in a single pile stand more than six feet high. Cangiano says the lawsuit cost him $1.7 million and cost Abramowitz and Rackham more than $2 million. Abramowitz and Rackham declined to comment.

Abramowitz, 61, and Rackham, 66, who spent more than 20 years accumulating the land and meticulously restoring more than two dozen buildings, claim that Cangiano fooled them into selling him the property. By purchasing it in the name of “Pacific Century Inc., a Hawaii corporation,” and never revealing himself as the buyer until after the contract was signed — Cangiano’s signature is an unintelligible scrawl — Rackham and Abramowitz say they were led to believe that they were selling to a group of “rich Hawaiians” who wanted to conserve the property and, perhaps, create an equestrian center. On that basis, they said, they accepted a relatively low $20 million bid for the property, which if fully subdivided and developed could have been worth $36 million.

In fact, between the time they signed a sales contract in late December 2004 and the scheduled closing date in April 2005, Rackham and Abramowitz, according to court records, learned that Cangiano had a contract to “flip” the land for a $5 million fee to Toll Brothers, one of the nation’s leading homebuilders.

Cangiano claims the sellers should have known his intentions: He rejected the original contract language requiring him to conserve the property.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to sign that. If they want to know what I’m doing with the property, let them tell me what they’re doing with the money.’”

“Sal,” as he is widely known, says there was no intent to deceive. And he insists that local realtor Gloria Lynn Gardner, whom Rackham and Abramowitz accuse of misleading them, “did nothing wrong, I take full responsibility.” But he quickly adds that “I was foolish and over-trusting of these sellers.”

There’s a school of thought in Loudoun County that Cangiano is a front man, a stalking horse for Toll Brothers, and that it was his intention from the start to “flip” the property. The idea is not a radical one: Cangiano has turned fast land deals with Toll Brothers in the past, two of them in Loudoun County.

But Cangiano denies it: “I’m no one’s stooge.”

And Bruce Toll, the former longtime president and chief operating officer of the Pennsylvania-based firm, concurred. Rackham testified that when he spoke to Toll, a business acquaintance, in March of 2005 he raised the question. “I said, ‘your buy/sell has been playing some dirty tricks here, Bruce.’ And Bruce said, ‘He’s not our boy. He beat us to it.’” Bruce Toll did not return phone calls.

As it worked out, however, by 2007, when Cangiano took possession of the land, zoning changes prohibited subdividing the entire 549 acres into small lots in the Wheatland area, and so Toll was no longer interested.

Cangiano credits his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who developed railroad properties in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with imbuing him with the art of the deal “when I had diapers on.”

Cangiano declined repeated requests to be photographed for this story: “I’m a very private person,” he said.

And while he testified, “I am not a litigious person,” in an interview, he did acknowledge that he spends a lot of time in court. Simultaneously with the Wheatland suit, Cangiano was in court fighting over at least three other land development projects, in New Jersey and Virginia. If you count the settlement of the Wheatland suit as a win, he won two and lost two during that period. Not a bad batting average. Even in New Jersey.

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