West Cape May's Oldest House May Be Demolished

WEST CAPE MAY - History repeats and history may lose again. One year ago, the borough lost the historic Moffitt House at 715 Broadway, built six years before the birth of America in 1776, when it was demolished by its owner despite preparations made to move the house to a nearby property. That situation may repeat itself with the home at 108 Stevens Street, known by locals as the Douglass House, facing a similar fate. Built in 1720, it is referred to by the state Historic Preservation Office as the Ezekiel Eldredge House with ties to the founding fa-thers of West Cape May. Its owner Michael Bitny, of New Hope, Pa, was denied approval by West Cape May's Plan-ning Board subdivide the property in a 5-2 vote at a March 14 meeting. Oddly enough, Donald Bailey, who tore down the Moffitt House, was in the audience, on hand to seek approval to build three townhouses on the former site of the historic home, now an overgrown vacant lot. Bitny requested his 19,500-sqaure foot lot be divided into two lots of 9,810 each. In return, Bitny would promise to preserve the Douglass House while building a new house be-hind it.

The property is located in the R-4 zone, which would have required variances for insuf-ficient lot depth and area and rear yard setback. Bitny told the board he was unaware how old the Douglass House was when he purchased it last July. He said he had a demolition permit to tear down the house. Bitny said he was contacted by preservationist Joan Berkey who informed him of the his-tory of the house. He said he wished to build another house on the property to finance the restoration of the Douglass House.

The home belonged to Ezekiel Eldredge, who served as sheriff in 1696 and 1699, and left the home to his son Ezekiel Eldredge Jr. in 1739. West Cape May was once known as the Village of Eldredge. The house was also the residence of one of the borough's mayors, George Reeves, who served several terms in the late 1800s and owned a gold beating factory in town.

Planning board attorney Brock Russell said there were previous subdivisions of the prop-erty. Mayor Pamela Kaithern said the property was once part of a one-acre parcel. During public comment, Daniel Rutherford, of 113 Stevens Street spoke against granting the subdivision. He said he feared a lot next door to the Douglass House would also be converted into two lots if Bitny received his subdivision.

"This isn't really about saving an historic house, its about, in my opinion, just addi-tional profit," said Rutherford. "How will the owners guarantee the continued preserva-tion of the house in perpetuity?" He said zoning regulations clearly did not permit a subdivision. Neighbor Bruce Conwell and his wife Janice concurred with Rutherford, noting granting the subdivision would set a precedent.

"Why would you knock that house down, it makes no sense," said Pond Creek Lane resident Richard Crossley, who said Bitny could make a profit without demolishing the house. Resident Marie Iaconangelo warned the board to "think very carefully," on Bitny's re-quest. She called the Douglass House "one of the oldest in the borough, in the county, and probably one of the oldest in the state."

"Whatever you decide, the resulting decision, will show the community where you stand on historic preservation," said Iaconangelo. Kaithern said the application pitted two key issues against each other, historic preser-vation and land use. She asked Bitny if he would consider letting someone else move the Douglass House from his property. "I don't know," he answered.

Bitny's attorney, Andrew Catanese, said "the word has been out that this property is in jeopardy." He said he no one had come forward with an interest in moving the house. Utilities have been disconnected from the house, often the final step before arrival of demolition equipment. Deputy Mayor Dick Rigby said he was alarmed the way Bitny was "waving the demolition permit around."

Following the meeting, Bitny showed little interest in another request from Kaithern to move the house.

IN OTHER BUSINESS: Donald Bailey received approval to build three town homes on the for-mer site of the Moffitt House, demolished March 18, 2005. When asked by the Herald if he had regrets tearing down the historic home, he refused to answer and attempted to prevent a Herald reporter from taking his photograph by placing a hand across the lens. The Moffitt House was torn down despite preservationist Gwen Goodwin securing a party ready to move the home to their property. The demolition spurred borough commission to research creating an historic preservation commission (HPC). An ordinance to create an HPC has yet to be introduced by borough commission.