Dan Shedrick, a gregarious, deeply suntanned 55-year-old entrepreneur, is standing in the middle of perhaps the last great plot of open buildable land in the Hamptons, a quick Mercedes jaunt from power restaurant Nick & Toni's. It is a remarkable oceanside patch: 54 sun-drenched, salt-kissed acres of fallow potato fields on East Hampton's swanky Further Lane. Nestled around this precious, leafy acreage are the houses of Billy Joel, Citicorp's Jack Rivkin, and financier Bruce Wasserstein, not to mention the renters of the summer, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid.
Shedrick, who made his money producing Score baseball cards -- is well aware that owning this parcel (in Hamptons-real-estate terms) is like sitting on a pile of Internet stock options a week before the IPO. Which is why it sounds all the more shocking when he utters the most heartbreaking sentence imaginable to the area's desperate house-hunters: "I want to return it to its original status -- farmland." In just a couple of weeks, Shedrick will seed the property with buckwheat and ryegrass. "To me, the Hamptons are really about open space, about the golden light over the fields in the late afternoon," says Shedrick, who has a house in Bridgehampton and grew up in Sagaponack.
Ryegrass! In this market? It's like telling a Met curator that you plan to buy Van Gogh's Irises and hang it in your daughter's bedroom. But Shedrick's noble gesture stands out precisely because it is such a rebuke to the current frenzied auction-house atmosphere.
In the most prime locations -- which means south of the highway in Southampton, Sagaponack, and East Hampton -- there is little open land for sale that people can build on. Never before in the Hamptons has so much money chased so little available property. This scarcity is leading to intense pressure on buyers, sellers, and even brokers. In a year of overnight cyber-fortunes and spectacular Wall Street bonuses, people want to announce their arrival in vaguely Pharaoh-ish fashion, by building -- or buying -- a monument to their own financial acumen.
This summer, seemingly every plot of buildable land has been striped with a dirt road leading to a bare-timber frame. Speculative building is rampant; indeed, "spec" houses -- dwellings built by people who plan to profit off their immediate sale -- are cropping up from Montauk to Southampton. Entirely new streets are being unfurled: Casey Lane in Bridgehampton is a cul-de-sac whose entrance is across the street from the Channing Daughters vineyard. Sagg Pond Court is another overnight cul-de-sac with a dozen houses that has taken root off Sagg Main Street in Sagaponack.
On Holden Court, a spur off Erica's Lane in Bridgehampton, spec-house builders have created a Levittown for the overclass. The two streets are an enclave featuring nearly a dozen hulking houses cheek by jowl, some of which are on the market for close to $2 million. "There ought to be crime-scene tape strung across the entrance to Erica's Lane," sniffs sassy Sag Harbor broker Tara Newman.
Jeff Salaway, the owner of Nick & Toni's, who's been tastefully renovating the Atlantic, an aging down-market Shinnecock hotel, decries the suburbanization creeping toward his house in Wainscott. "You've got acres and acres of farmland around there that now have houses on them," Salaway says. "It's futile to wish they weren't there. But I do wish they'd spend a little more time thinking about what they look like. Architects seem to think the more peaks on the roof, the better. Everyone is trying to out-gable the next guy. So there are these somewhat modest homes with, like, 27 rooflines. I don't get the point of having a house in the country, and then twenty feet away, there's somebody else's goofy-looking house."
But making a statement in the plutocratic Hong Kong Hamptons has become increasingly difficult; all the money in the world can't add one measly square foot to the very finite quantity of land available. It's a situation that leads to no shortage of extreme behavior, from bidding less-than-spectacular properties into the stratosphere to bulldozing modest shingles and wedging gigantic pleasure domes into their places. Says Tom Raffo, a broker in Sotheby's Southampton office and a developer who builds spec houses himself, "This summer, we saw the last wave of building on any open land in the Hamptons."
"Fordune," Henry Ford II's old southampton estate, which boasts 44 oceanfront acres and a 16,000-square-foot, French-country-style main house, is the current K2 among Hamptons asking prices -- on the market for a staggering $35 million. It is, in price, what Ira Rennert's 29-bedroom dormitory under the stars in Sagaponack will be in size. But even a few rungs down, the prices are simply astonishing.
"Bidding wars are constantly flaring up," says Peter Hallock, president of Allan M. Schneider Associates, a premier Hamptons real-estate company. "Just today, one of my brokers was dealing with a property where two people kept topping each other's previous price. People get frustrated and angry, and as a broker, you don't want to lose both clients. So we decided to go to a sealed bid, which you see more and more often. Both parties write down a price, slip it into an envelope, and whoever names the higher price gets the property -- end of deal."
One Manhattan public-relations executive says he had hammered out an agreement with an investment banker for a house on a nice wooded patch of Amagansett. The house, he says, was in contract; the price, agreed upon. Then one afternoon, right before the closing, the banker called him to say the deal was off -- a much higher bid had just swanned in. "But we had a deal -- I had your word," the P.R. executive protested. "And I'm sure in business, your word means everything."
"Yes, but this isn't business," the banker countered. "This is real estate."