By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
Crunch time may be nearing on the fate of the once-palatial Doris Duke residence, now deteriorating and being dismantled.
Duke Farms filed this week an application for a long-sought permit to demolish the 65,000-square-foot building that, at its core, is a late 1860s farmhouse. The building has expanded and renovated over the decades to render it architecturally undistinguished, Duke Farms maintains.
The original request in June triggered a series of hearing to determine if the house had enough significance.
Also pending is a full-fledged court suit from preservationists who want to stop further piecemeal work at the home, and force another hearing on the demolition permit. The preservationists want to stop the process to be able to show Duke Farms how a renovated building could be used to the foundation’s and public’s benefit.
It’s unclear whether the suit will be heard in Superior Court before a permit is granted.
Township building official John Fiedler didn’t return phone calls by Tuesday’s deadline asking about the status of the permit request.
Michael Catania, executive director of Duke Farms, said Monday, in an email that the foundation has applied for a demolition permit.
“But I have no way of knowing when the permit might be approved, which means that there is really no way of knowing when the demolition might actually commence. And, of course, the matter is in litigation, so it is not even appropriate to speculate what might happen,” he wrote.
The group DORIS filed with the Law Division of Superior Court to stop the removal of the building, alleging procedural violations, personal conflicts of the part of Historic Preservation Commissioners and the alleged failure to meet and conform to the township’s conditions for allowing a permit to raze a historical property.
Defendants are Hillsborough Township and its Historic Preservation Commission, Duke Farms Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Edward Henry, the foundations’ president.
DORIS wants the court to revoke the preservation commission’s Oct. 30 resolution to allow the issuance of a demolition permit until it conforms its actions to the Open Public Meetings Act, and to revoke the Oct. 15 vote of approval of the application until it conforms its action to the Municipal Land Use Law for the proper scheduling of special meetings.
It also wants the township ordered to revoke all building permits issued to allow removal of embellishments, like fixtures, windows and mantles, in the home and to stop their sale on the Internet. It asks for the foundation to provide within 10 days a full accounting and inventory of removed items, and for Duke Farms to return and secure all of these removed materials.
DORIS claims the decision of the preservation commission was “arbitrary and capricious, unreasonable and without sufficient basis in the law.” Commission members did not act in a fair and impartial manner, the complaint says, and “at least three members had the appearance of or actual conflicts of interest, but only one recused himself, some expressed bias, one offered leading questions to the applicant and one was even noted to be sleeping during the hearing.”
DORIS alleges the hearing process “was skewed towards the applicant” and the public’s ability to participate in the hearing process “was thwarted and disrespected by both the Township Attorney (William Willard) and the chairman of the commission (Arnold Radi).”
DORIS says its case was not heard sufficiently and uninterrupted. The court papers claim that, “after the demand by Duke Farms to limit public comment,” the commission at the Oct. 15 meeting changed the rules to limit public comment per person to two minutes.
In doing so “they acted to stymie public involvement. To make matters worse, the Chairman of the Commission continuously interrupted speakers to warn them on their time and that only served to disrupt the continuity and effectiveness of the public to present cogent public comments,” reads the court argument. “The actions of the Chairman limited the rights of the public to participate. Approximately 36 members of the public offered comments on the application.”
DORIS alleges potential conflicts of interest or bias casting doubt on the ability of some commissioners to render a fair and impartial decision. Commissioner Timothy Coyle, who is part of a township fire company that receives donations from Duke Farms, was allowed to participate, the papers say. A potential conflict of interest by commissioner Greg Gillette, who also serves as an elected official on the Board of Education, voted earlier in the year to approve field trips for school children to Duke Farms, the papers say. The complaint cites the “dual roles” raise questions as to his true “master.”
Mr. Gillette said this week the school board approved Duke Farms in 2008 as one of 300 possible field trip destinations for students. The administration makes the call on each request, he said.
Commissioner Fred Quick was alleged to be seen apparently sleeping during the hearings. One member, Tim Johnson, commented that he would love to purchase the contents of the house before the demolition took place.
The complaint also alleges that at all three hearing dates, at least two Township Committee members (Frank DelCore and Greg Burchette) “observed” the proceedings by standing in the back of the room “in order to ostensibly let the Commission members visibly know of their presence.” On Sept. 24, Mr. DelCore “was overheard making comments that indicated that he disliked the DORIS members by huffing and puffing in disdain and he became very agitated when counsel for DORIS spoke. He was also observed speaking or lobbying with members of the Commission during a break in the proceedings.”
The complaint alleges Duke Farms and the township ignored enforcing the implicit stay, or halt, in work when DORIS filed an administrative appeal to the Board of Adjustment on Nov. 5.
The township should not have allowed its building department to grant permits to allow removal of architectural flourishes doors, railings, fixtures, a floor fountain and other components like mantles and windows within the residence, the suit alleges. In effect those permits has “authorized anticipatory demolition,” the complaint says.
DORIS alleges Duke Farms has yielded its claim to being a private property by seeking and taking money from Somerset County for development rights on hundred of acres of its total estate.
Duke Farms has received more than $55 million in loans and financial support from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, starting in 2009, to pay for the rehabilitation, restoration and creation of the facilities open to the public. More than one-half million people have since come to the property, billed as a model of environmental stewardship and sustainability.
The measures “transformed the property from a purely private property to a quasi-public property,” the papers say.
As argued previously, the papers also allege the commission failed to review and apply the seven ordinance criteria that it must rely upon in order to render a decision, the papers say.
By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor