The Nation's Pulse

Class Warfare at the Beach

Let them eat potato chips…

By 6.15.09

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SEA ISLE, N.J. -- I met Elaine Scattergood for breakfast last week in a little coffee shop on Dune Drive in Avalon, just a few blocks from where Utz potato chip magnate Michael Rice is putting the finishing touches on a super-sized mansion that sits atop the highest dune in town.

Now in its third year of construction, the 40-room, 14,000 square-foot house will have nine bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, a three-car garage, maid's quarters and a dune-top pool when it's completed.

Ms. Scattergood, the founder of Save Avalon's Dunes (SAD), a community group with about 150 members, has been the town's most visible opponent of Rice's project. She lives with a cat, parrot and her dog, Francis, in what Philadelphia magazine called a "ramshackle cottage," a "tattered beach house that's cluttered with the accoutrements of the intellectually eccentric: mismatched furniture, old flashlights and lamp shades, messy stacks of books, a healthy back stash of Mother Jones."

Mother Jones magazine is named after Mary Harris Jones, an early-20th-century radical labor organizer, community activist and self-described "hellraiser." In 1898, she helped found the Social Democratic Party of America, later renamed, more accurately, as the Socialist Party of America.

I asked Scattergood if she was a socialist. "No," she replied. "I'm been a Republican most of my life. I attended a Republican convention in Pittsburgh." This time around, though, she went for Obama.

After breakfast, we took a ride past Mr. Rice's current house, now on the market for $12 million. At 7,000 square feet, it's one of the largest beach houses in Avalon, located only a few blocks from the new mansion. But it sits next to the dunes, not on top of one. It has seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, an elevator, a spa and a library.

Not buying the more-is-better ethos, Ms. Scattergood can't see why the $12 million house isn't good enough, especially when getting bigger might mean the destruction of a species of rare cattail or an endangered turtle or piping plover.

She described the time she ran into Rice during one of the hearings to obtain approval for the new construction. "Why," she asked, "do you need a house that large?" She said he replied that his attorney had told him to ask for more than he actually wanted, so in the end, after negotiations, he stated that he got "exactly what we wanted." 

Scattergood labeled Rice's new house as "hideous" in a 2007 interview with Philadelphia magazine. "We don't need to look at big houses," she said. "If you were a thoughtful person, you just wouldn't do this. You wouldn't do it for the sake of the environment. Heavens, these people have sold enough potato chips to buy an island somewhere. They could live anywhere without destroying."

Building a house that's "going to take that load of electricity and heat is insane," she continued. "I don't care how much money you have."

"It's a treasure," Scattergood said to me, speaking of the maritime forests and sweeping grasslands in the high dunes of Avalon. "It's what defines Avalon. Once it's gone, it's gone. What makes life wonderful are the contrasts. You walk through the wilderness and then suddenly you see the vista of the sand and the sea."

I counted 19 pickup trucks and vans at Rice's new house when we drove up, evidence that he has become a one-man stimulus package for construction jobs during this especially severe downturn in new home building at the shore. That doesn't seem to matter much to Ms. Scattergood. I'd guess that she would maintain, Obama-style, that the birds and the people would both be better off if some of Mr. Rice's millions were taxed away and spread around to create greener jobs in education, health care and the environment.

In another class warfare skirmish at the beach, the United Auto Workers union is running a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz against Bally's and Caesars in Atlantic City in order to break a stalemate in its negotiations for a first-ever labor contract at both casinos.

In a gaming industry that's already down some 38 percent this year, the union, in effect, allegedly on the side of "job security" at Bally's and Caesars, is telling the public to switch to Trump's.

Responding, the casinos are running full-page ads in the local newspapers with this headline: "Don't let the UAW turn Atlantic City into the next Detroit."

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.