Sand Castles

When a potato-chip heir decided to build one of the biggest mansions ever in Avalon, the town that prides itself on being “cooler by a mile” found its citizens hot under the collar. Are people with too much money and too-big houses destroying what we love about the Shore?

ELAINE SCATTERGOOD CLUTCHES HER FEISTY LAPDOG, Frances, against her bosom, standing at the mammoth concrete base that will, this time next year, serve as the foundation of Michael Rice’s über-mansion in Avalon. It’s a gorgeous day at the beach, the kind that makes people play hooky and head to the Shore. But Scattergood isn’t enjoying the weather. Her eyes are cold and flinty as she squints through the sun.

“I asked him, you know,” she says. Frances wiggles free and leaps from her arms, sniffing the gravelly ground around us. Scattergood is talking about the last time she saw Rice, the potato-chip magnate who’s building what will surely be one of the biggest houses ever constructed at the Shore. “I went up to him and said, ‘Why? Why do you need a house that large?’”

The question seems fair enough, especially given that Rice, the beefy heir to the Hanover, Pennsylvania-based Utz potato-chip fortune, and his elegant blond wife, Jane, already had a pretty sizeable house in Avalon — a seven-bedroom, seven-bath beachfront manor sporting an elevator, a spa and a library. Apparently, though, that little abode was starting to feel a tad cramped, and so last spring the couple broke ground on the even bigger house now in question: a 14,000-square-foot monstrosity that sits atop Avalon’s storied high dunes and reportedly will include 13 bathrooms, nine bedrooms, a pool, maids’ quarters, and views overlooking both the ocean and the bay.

Scattergood says that when she asked Michael Rice why he was building such a big house, his answer amounted to, well, because. “Oh, we asked for more,” she remembers Rice saying. “We were told by our lawyer to ask for more. So in the end, we got exactly what we wanted.”

A 14,000-square-foot house — that’s three times the footprint of Independence Hall, for those of you scoring at home — is clearly not something that Scattergood and her Avalon compadres want in their town, which is why they’ve gone to war trying to stop the House That Potato Chips Built. They’ve spoken at borough council meetings, filed a lawsuit, even hit the Rices where it hurts — launching an unofficial Utz potato-chip boycott. None of which has endeared Scattergood to Michael Rice. “He really doesn’t like me,” she says.

No, he probably doesn’t. But what’s at stake here is bigger than just one cranky activist and one big house. It’s even bigger than Avalon, a Shore burg that has always boasted a certain singular élan; back in the 1970s, Ed McMahon would regularly gush to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show about how much he loved his house here. The 14th richest zip code in the U.S., it’s been the subject of Billy Joel song lyrics and today boasts an impressive roster of second-home owners from Philly’s who’s who, like Bryant Park Capital guru Joel Magerman and Main Line developer Brian O’Neill.

But the truth is that what’s happening in Avalon is happening all along the Jersey coast, from Sea Bright up north all the way down to Cape May, as almost unfathomable money washes ashore courtesy of a new robber-baron class that’s amassed huge wealth in hedge funds and the like, and is now planting its collective flag in the sand. Communities like Avalon, whose restrictive zoning has cunningly closed the loopholes that turned Ocean City, Sea Isle and other towns into quadriplexed eyesores, now find themselves the preferred addresses for a new breed of development: the seashore show palace. The New Money is gobbling up generous lots, tearing down the archetypal beach bungalows that make seashore towns postcard-worthy, duking it out in a big swinging-chandelier contest: I’ll see your Viking range and built-in pool and raise you two new wraparound decks, 10 gables, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Oh, and I’m going to light the whole thing up at night, too.

But isn’t that what the good old U.S. of A. is all about? You work hard, you make a shitload of dough, you get to spend it the way you want, including buying yourself a mondo house at the Shore. I ask Elaine Scattergood if by protesting the Rice mansion she isn’t stepping on the American Dream. “It’s just irresponsible,” she sniffs. But it’s not illegal, I say. “That doesn’t matter. When it’s all gone, it’s gone forever.” She puts a hand up to her face, hooding her eyes from the glare as she watches a crew of sweaty workmen roll steel drums through the sand.

“It’s going to be hideous,” she says.

ANYONE WHO’S EVER BEEN to a town council meeting in a small municipality would recognize Elaine Scattergood. She’s part of what might be called the professional whining class, the folks who are always thrusting petitions and studies and magazine articles at various bodies and generally proselytizing that the town’s going to hell in a handbasket.

So it would be easy to dismiss her and her peeved band of followers, members of a ragtag group called Save Avalon’s Dunes (SAD), as a bunch of crunchy environmentalists. Scattergood lives in a tattered beach house on 30th Street that’s cluttered with the accoutrements of the intellectually eccentric: a cat, mismatched furniture, old flashlights and lamp shades, messy stacks of books, a healthy back stash of Mother Jones. With her clipped Katharine Hepburn diction and wispy gray hair, she can come across as downright odd. Indeed, in many parts of Avalon, the SAD people are considered, well, sad. “I think a lot of them need to get a life,” says Maggie Szarek, who runs a popular eponymous restaurant in town.

Perhaps. But even those who support — at least in spirit — the right of the Rices and other too-rich-for-words people to build whatever they want confess that they’re uneasy at the changes turning the skyline of the Shore into the opening credits of Dynasty. “If you drive down the street, you don’t see too many of the older homes,” says Peter Hoffman, a Philadelphia attorney who owns a home on Avalon’s bay. “You see a lot of big, big homes, which I think has changed the character. It’s less beachy than it used to be.”

Of course, two years ago, Hoffman razed his beachy cottage — and built a bigger house. But he admits he was ambivalent about it for just that reason. Seems he still is. “All the architect wanted was to make it bigger and bigger,” he says. “And all I kept doing was making it smaller and smaller. I didn’t need that space.” In the end, the pressure from what might be termed the Shore industrial complex — the palms-rubbing-together nexis of realtors, contractors, landscapers and architects whose profits are directly proportional to a house’s size — wore Hoffman down. Ultimately, he got more than he wanted (2,500 square feet) but less than the architect did (4,000 square feet).

There are other explanations for what’s happening. Houses in general have gotten bigger — in Villanova or Gladwyne today, a 14,000-square-foot home seems almost de rigueur, and even a standard-issue Orleans house can clock in at well over 5,000 square feet. But the Shore has always been different. Even in fabulous Longport, which has its share of glass oceanfront castles fit for the pages of Architectural Digest, the bulk of town still consists of your typical, adorable seashore cottages. It was somehow comforting that places like Longport, Avalon and Stone Harbor had managed to sidestep the wave of multi-family construction that whipped down the rest of the coastline like a forest fire. That’s why nobody saw the sand-castle craze coming — it was sneaky, oozing into towns like the Blob from that ’50s horror movie.

Which has, as a result, changed the entire social dynamic of the Shore. In the old days, you went to the Shore, rented a place you could afford, and blissfully relished a week where you didn’t have to wear shoes. Being a sweaty slob reading the newspaper on the beach wasn’t just tolerated; it was encouraged. But over the past 20 years, even the modestly affluent beachgoers who comprise the bulk of the Shore rental trade upped the ante, opting for places with new kitchens, nice bathrooms, proximity to the water and roomy decks. “What people want and expect from a summer home has changed pretty dramatically in a generation,” says Mark Asher, a Stone Harbor architect who does a fair number of Avalon projects. “Most people — and I’m not so different — have a nostalgia for a time when your neighbor’s house was the same as yours, and you didn’t know whether the owner was the CEO of Exxon or the guy who pumped the gas. There was a simpler, sandy-footed nature to it. You didn’t have a TV, never mind a microwave or the Internet.”

But such egalitarianism — the rich, the middle class and the working class on even footing — has all but disappeared. By building behemoth, towering Xanadus packed with slick, lemony hardwood floors, marble tubs, gyms, home spas, and window after window after window, the super-rich are doing something to the Shore no one could have foreseen: They’re turning it into a gated community.

The Rices are hardly the only people building a big manse at the Shore, but theirs is proving something of a tipping point. In effect, a lot of people who love the Shore feel it’s literally buckling under the weight of all the McMansioning. “There’s been no way for that frustration to vent,” says Asher. “And the Rice house has the unfortunate distinction of being so high-profile. … It’s just so in-your-face.”

Can the $50 million Longport estate be far behind? It speaks to Elaine Scattergood’s query to Michael Rice: Why does anyone need a second home that big?

Richard Hluchan, an attorney from Ballard Spahr who represents the Rices, smiles when I put that question to him. (The Rices declined to be interviewed for this story.) “Because that’s the house that [Rice] and his architect designed,” he says. “That’s the house he got approved. And that’s the house he wants built.”

THE RICES’ QUEST to build their Monticello by the Sea actually began in 1998. One of the first things they did was hire Hluchan, a former deputy attorney general for the DEP and part-time Avalon resident who specializes in environmental land-use law, helping rich people build things at the beach. Despite the fact that the scope of the project was, by anyone’s estimation, massive, matters proceeded apace as Hluchan and his army scythed through the endless fields of paperwork such a building requires.

Initially denied a permit by the DEP, the Rices appealed, and the state ultimately gave them the green light. Then Avalon’s planning board fell in line after hearing perfunctory testimony from a coastal engineer, hired by Rice, who said the house wouldn’t pose any environmental threat to the high dunes. Construction finally began in March 2006.

So did the trouble.

In order to build a mansion that size, construction crews had to rip out some of the trees and dense vegetation that are the hallmarks of Avalon’s high dunes, which stretch along Dune Drive like an enchanted forest from 43rd Street to 58th Street. So last spring, when a gaping hole suddenly appeared, people noticed. “This is a cultural, social, environmental resource that defines the town,” Asher says of the dunes. “It makes Avalon a special place.”

“This is not Newport,” adds Elaine Scattergood, summing up the feeling of a vocal portion of the townsfolk — and perhaps a good portion that isn’t. “We don’t need to look at big houses. And with the issues we are dealing with in the environment, to build a house that is going to take that load of electricity and heat is insane. I don’t care how much money you have.”

But the Rices did, in fact, have the money, and they weren’t afraid to spend it, either on new drapes or a legal fight. A low-profile couple socially at the Shore, they nonetheless strategically laid the groundwork for their battle. They retained Hluchan, who has known Avalon mayor Marty Pagliughi, arguably the most powerful pol in town, for years; they gave money to local charities and turned up for photo ops at events like the annual Wings ’n Water Festival, which benefits Middle Township’s esteemed Wetlands Institute. The institute’s executive director, Cindy O’Connor, calls them “down-to-earth, normal people,” but dodges when I ask her what she thinks of the couple’s plans. “We actually have discussed this, and we feel this is not an issue … ” She trails off. “When it comes to attorneys and permits, that’s not what we do here.” Hmm. But as the ersatz mother hen of the coastline, how can she have no opinion on one of the most heated ecological battles at the Shore in the past decade? “I try very hard to stay neutral on these issues” is all she says.

Scattergood and SAD, on the other hand, are anything but. Galvanized (as such organizations often are) by an initial sense of outrage, they picketed the site last spring, then filed suit last November to stop the project, accusing the Rices of all sorts of environmental malfeasance and ignored regulations. SAD alleged that construction was taking away the highest dune in town and thus exposing Avalon to horrific storm damage — something the community has largely avoided because it’s the only Shore town still buffered by natural high dunes. Hluchan, Rice’s attorney, counters that Michael Rice has agreed to deed-restrict 23,000-plus square feet — more than half the lot — from future development. “Any suggestion that the construction of this home is going to interfere with the natural function of the dunes or the normal storm-protective nature of the dunes is absurd,” Hluchan says.

Much of the hullabaloo ended up centering on whether the Rices’ plans for a pool violated an agreement between the DEP and Avalon (it did), but Hluchan argued convincingly that the borough had allowed other such pools. In January, a judge ruled for the Rices, then tossed the rest of the matter back to the appellate division. Now it appears the handwriting is on the blueprints. SAD has raised $9,500, spent $7,500, owes $56,000 in legal fees, and is now without a lawyer. In effect, Scattergood and her not-so-merry band of activists trying to save the piping plover and redwing blackbird are up the dunes without a paddle.

TERRY STROBAUGH GETS UP from his dining room table, walks over to the window, and yanks on the cord that sends his vertical blinds swaying to the right, exposing the view of the bay across the street. Or what was a view of the bay. Where one used to see azure water, one now sees a sprawling, multi-decked gingerbread confection, Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables as rendered by Toll Brothers. Strobaugh stares at it. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

A member of the Avalon Environmental Commission, Strobaugh ran for a borough council seat in May’s local election, fueled by a desire to do something — anything — about what he sees as unbridled development in Avalon. “I want to be clear,” the former patent attorney says. “This is not about the Rices. This is not about boycotting Utz potato chips and pretzels. This is about protecting the dunes. And master planning in general.”

Though Strobaugh lost the election, and says he won’t run again, he still plans on advocating for Avalon’s ecosystem. As for Scattergood, she’ll try to argue the case to the appellate division herself. “I don’t know that we can win,” she admits. “But I think we have to finish it.”

As for the rest of Avalon, with the battle over the Rice estate in its fin de siècle, the town has turned its attention to a similar home proposed for the high dunes. This time, township officials are adopting a much tougher stance, presumably to combat critics who accuse them of repeatedly rolling over for the New Money and its gaudy sand castles. The application by Linwood dermatologist Coyle Connolly for two variances needed to build a house in the high dunes at 51st Street — a diamond’s throw from the Rices — brought 100 people to the borough hall for a five-hour planning board meeting that featured, among other things, two board members stepping down and a particularly cantankerous audience member being escorted out by police. The variances were denied. Connolly is, predictably, appealing.

That brouhaha notwithstanding, most folks in Avalon seem resigned to the fact that rich people usually get what they want, and at the Shore nowadays, that means a big, splashy residence with 360-degree views of the water. “Things change, and I think we have to roll with the punches. That’s how I feel about it,” says Maggie Szarek, sipping a cup of black coffee in her restaurant. “Nothing stays the same. And sometimes it’s good that it doesn’t.” And if Shore towns morph into the Main Line on the Atlantic, architect Mark Asher says, “Well, I suppose there are worse things.”

Don’t tell that to Elaine Scattergood. We take a drive together, and as we head up First Avenue toward Sea Isle, she tells me to pull over. “There,” she says, pointing to a massive putty-colored manor near 38th Street. “That’s the Rices’ current house. Why do they need a new one?”

We pull away from the home — now for sale for $12 million — and head back toward Elaine’s ramshackle cottage. “If you were a thoughtful person,” she says, “you just wouldn’t do this. You wouldn’t do it for the sake of the environment.” Her voice is that of a scolding schoolteacher. “Heavens, these people have sold enough potato chips to buy an island somewhere. They could live anywhere without destroying.”

As we round the corner toward her house, she mentions a longtime neighbor who recently sold his home. She told him she couldn’t believe he was leaving Avalon. “I’m not leaving Avalon,” he told her. “Avalon left me.”

Published as “Sand Castles” in the July 2007 issue of Philadelphia magazine.