HILLSBOROUGH: Duke mansion appeal denied; court appeal likely

By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
A judge will likely decide the fate of the Doris Duke main residence.
The township Board of Adjustment on Wednesday night rebuffed an appeal of an October decision by the Historic Preservation Commission that cleared the way for the Duke Farms estate to demolish the 65,000-square-foot house in the northern part of the township.
The building’s core dates back to a 1860s farmhouse, and it was often renovated and expanded over the decades by tobacco empire builder James B. Duke and his daughter, Doris.
Ms. Duke, who used her life of privilege to become a preservationist and philanthropist, made the residence her principal home until she died in 1993.
The zoning board decided unanimously that the township ordinance didn’t grant the right of an appeal of a preservation commission decision to anyone but a denied applicant.
There was also a discussion over whether the state Municipal Land Use Law applied, but that too was found to be unclear.
In the end the board thought the best path was to deny the request for an appeal – and everyone was fine with that, including David Brook, a township resident and attorney for a group called DORIS, an acronym for Demolition Of Residence Is Senseless.
He called the zoning board’s vote as “liberating.” He characterized the appeal as fulfilling a necessary step before filing in court, which he said would come “soon.” When pressed, he said, “very soon.”
A judge would likely want to see that DORIS has exhausted all of its administrative remedies before allowing a legal case to proceed, Mr. Brook said.
Duke Farms Foundation has converted the estate’s more than 2,000 acres into an environmental preserve open free to the public. It said it needed to remove the deteriorating main residence to open that part of the property for public use and to be able to shift money to restore the Coach Barn and other properties on the estate.
Michael Catania, executive director of Duke Farms, shared a press release that restoration of the Coach Barn is “steadily proceeding” and likely to be completed early in 2016. Duke Farms is pursuing renovation of that building for public conference space as an alternative to restoring the main residence, which it found unsuitable for the estate’s purposes, it said during preservation commission meetings.
Outside the meeting after the meeting, Mr. Brook shifted the discussion to what Duke Farms is calling salvage work in the residence.
Blocked from applying for and receiving a demolition approval from the township, Duke Farms has gotten plumbing and building permits to remove items like windows, doors and mantels, said Mr. Brook. He showed copies of the permits, and claimed the contractor was selling the removed items on the Internet and billing them as from “recent work from a prominent north New Jersey estate.”
His appeal to a court would ask for an injunction to stop all work at the property, he said, as well as account for all materials, freeze handling of them and demand the return of removed items.
Objectors to the demolition of the residence will hold a symbolic 103rd birthday party for Ms. Duke on Sunday, Dec. 6, rain or shine, at 1 p.m. at Duke Island Park, Oak Grove Pavilion, Bridgewater Township.
Ms. Duke was born on Nov. 22, 1912, and died on Oct. 28, 1993.
The “birthday party” will feature a cake, an awards ceremony, a presentation of the value of preserving her residence, which is “threatened by the very foundation she set up to protect it.”
DORIS and members of the community say they also plan to mourn the demise from the estate that she called her home.