By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
Illegal demolition or salvage of usable materials?
People trying to save the former home of Doris Duke went on full alert this week when they saw, from a distance, what looked to them to be destructive work at the property in the northern part of the township — without having an official demolition permit.
For the last four months, Duke Farms’ proposed demolition of the house has ignited a local — and even international — outcry. The 65,000-square-foot house, whose core dates back to the 1860s, was the home of tobacco empire builder James B. Duke and his daughter, Doris, who used her life of privilege to become a preservationist and philanthropist.
Duke Farms, which has converted the mansion property and more than 2,000 acres into an environmental preserve open free to the public, said it needed to remove the house to open that part of the property for public use and to be able to shift money to restore the Coach Barn and other buildings.
Members of DORIS (Demolition Of Residence Is Senseless) said this week they were outraged at what appeared to them to be the beginning of demolition without any approvals. They emailed photos, taken at a distance, of “then” and “now” to show the removal of what appear to be what they called “the complete demolition of one of the large two-story south-facing window assemblies on Friday, Nov. 20. From what can be seen, the windows are gone and the entire side of the house is exposed to the elements.”
Peg Van Patton, a DORIS member and longtime Hillsborough resident, said, “Duke Farms Foundation, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), seems to believe it is above the law and can do whatever it wants. We are calling upon the township code enforcement officials to immediately investigate what appears to be a flagrant violation of the law and to seek an immediate “stop work order’ for all illegal activities.”
Ms. Van Patton continued, “If these violations are confirmed, the Township should seek the maximum penalties against Duke Farms and demand that the destroyed facade be immediately replaced.”
Michael Catania, executive director of the Duke Farms Foundation, said in an email, “This allegation is completely without any factual basis.”
He said Duke Farms “has obtained the necessary permits to salvage certain architectural elements from the former main residence, which is exactly what is happening right now. The actual demolition has not yet begun, and Duke Farms will continue to act in accordance with the law.”
Township Administrator Anthony Ferrera said a permit was issued by the township construction official “authorizing the Duke Foundation to salvage plumbing fixtures, doors, windows and railings at the main residence.”
“The construction official will be inspecting the site to assess whether any work has been performed beyond that permitted,” Mr. Ferrera said. “The construction official has not issued a demolition permit to the Duke Foundation for the Main Residence.”
Objectors who want to save the main residence have filed an appeal with the township Board of Adjustment. The issue is on the zoning board’s Dec. 2 agenda.
The DORIS group presumed the filing would put a hold on the issuance of any demolition permit.
The Duke Farms Foundation received permission Oct. 29 from the township Historic Preservation Commission’s to process a demolition permit.
DORIS says its primary focus was to convince the commission to deny the demolition permit. In a press release, the group says the Historic Commission “did not perform its due diligence and blindly accepted the testimony of the Duke Farms Foundation with little supporting documentation.”
The appeal relies on the state Municipal Land Use Law to justify the appeal to the Board of Adjustment.
The appeal says the commission committed “extensive procedural and substantive errors” in violation of local and state law.
The commission demonstrated bias and acted in a disrespectful and unprofessional manner toward the public,” and that there was “insufficient basis in the record to support the decision.”
The appeal asks the Board of Adjustment to reject the commission’s decision, deny the demolition permit and take some action, perhaps holding a new hearing.
The appeal also repeats a contention made during the hearing that the municipal ordinance language creates a presumption against demolition by saying demolition of historically significant buildings “shall be discouraged.”
Hillsborough’s Rikki Lyn Hauss said Duke Farms “appears to be thumbing its nose at the township.” Ms. Hauss said that “DORIS will go to court, if necessary to stop this senseless act by the very foundation set up to protect Doris Duke’s legacy.”
By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor