Hamptons excess meets its match; Estate: Fair Field, with its planned 29 bedrooms and 100-car garage, has drawn a lawsuit and stirred up the cocktail set.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAGAPONACK, N.Y. -- Hamptons estate. Oceanvu. 29 BRs, 29 Baths. 100-car garage. 2 bwling alleys, 2 libraries. Mult livg, dining rms. Tns, bsktbl, squash cts. Greenhs, bch pavln, gate hs. Own pwr plant. Btfl gardens, unhappy nghbrs.

No, multimillionaire industrialist Ira Rennert isn't selling his house -- and in fact, construction is just under way -- but this could be the real estate ad if he ever decides to unload Fair Field, a particularly ostentatious mansion even by the standards of the property-mad Hamptons.

Rennert, who is as secretive as his planned house is showy, is building what may be the country's largest private residence -- and certainly one of the most controversial among its suddenly dwarfed neighbors.

At 66,000 square feet, it will be bigger than the White House (55,000 square feet) or Bill Gates' house (40,000). To find a private house larger than Fair Field, you have to consider those that now charge admission -- the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., (175,000) and the Hearst castle in San Simeon, Calif., (90,080).

While vanity houses are not uncommon in the Hamptons, the cluster of precious and pricey towns on the eastern end of Long Island's South Fork, the sheer size of Rennert's home has outraged neighbors.

"It's palace envy," said Hamptons-based writer Steven Gaines, whose 1998 book, "Philistines at the Hedgerow," traces the area's long history of real estate excess even before Rennert's arrival. "This is a competition. The Hamptons is all conspicuous consumption and showing off your wealth, and the most visual sign of your success is your house. The egos out here are tremendous, and Rennert's ego is the biggest of them all."

Already, the house has drawn a lawsuit, a change in local building codes, a satirical novel, a Michael Moore video assault and countless cocktail party denunciations -- the price of crossing neighbors who are as articulate, deep-pocketed and litigious as the moneyed and media-savvy Hamptonites.

"The Rape of Sagaponack," blared the headline on an ad that residents placed in a local newspaper to call their neighbors to arms, or at least to a zoning meeting at which the house would be discussed. "An obscene example of the wretched excess that seems to have the South Fork in a stranglehold," editorialized the weekly East Hampton Star. "The House That Ate the Hamptons" is what Parade magazine writer and author James Brady titled his recent novel, in which a similarly outsized house triggers scandal and intrigue.

Neighbors have sued to halt construction, claiming that nothing this huge can be considered a single-family home, which is the only kind of building allowed in the residential neighborhood in which Rennert's 63-acre parcel is located.

But even as the lawsuit against Rennert wends its way through the courts, crews are continuing to transform the former farmland into a megamansion. The construction of the house and various outbuildings -- which will bring the total area of structures on the property to 100,000 square feet -- is expected to take several more years.

For many, the bloated house is emblematic of all that ails the Hamptons, straining as it is under the weight of its own popularity. Fueled by the latest Wall Street boom, both building and tourism have intensified in recent years as day trippers, weekend renters, summer-long seasonals and year-rounders flock to breathe the same rarefied air as Steven Spielberg, Puff Daddy, Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein.

One of the quieter hamlets

But while many celebrities and those who would gawk at them have largely clustered in East Hampton, the glitziest of the Hamptons towns, Sagaponack has traditionally been one of the quieter hamlets. While it has its share of names that merit boldface in the gossip columns -- Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Kurt Vonnegut have homes here -- Sagaponack has generally been more subdued. Until, that is, Rennert came along, and the sound and the fury commenced.

Rennert himself has been the least heard voice in the ruckus he created. Generally, his lawyers speak for him at town meetings and in court, and he never gives interviews -- perhaps befitting his standing as head of one of the country's largest privately owned companies, the Renco Group.

Rennert was largely unknown in the Hamptons before deciding to build a home here. Residents say they don't believe he ever summered here, nor was he a part of the charity circuit that dominates the local social scene. (In a move that the more cynical here view as an attempt to get into the community's good graces, Rennert did make a donation this summer to a Southampton College benefit.)

But Rennert's philanthropic efforts are largely concentrated elsewhere. He is a major supporter of Orthodox Jewish causes and of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has led many to suspect that Fair Field will not just be his home but some sort of religious retreat or meeting facility.

"I'm very suspicious. Why would you need a garage for 100 cars? Twenty-nine bathrooms? Something's wrong there," Gaines said. "The size of the house is inappropriate for anyone's private residence. People in Sagaponack are worried that they're really being duped into letting in a meeting hall or retreat or international reception center for worldwide Jewry."

Rennert's lawyers insist Fair Field is indeed a single-family home. That designation was critical in Rennert receiving a building permit, neighbors say, because single-family homes are exempt from having to pass an environmental-impact review. Instead, Fair Field only had to meet these requirements: The structure could rise no higher than 32 feet or cover more than 10 percent of its 63-acre tract, and its design had to be deemed aesthetically appropriate by the local Architectural Review Board.

Fair Field passed those hurdles, and Rennert received a permit to build in early 1998. But the subsequent outcry when neighbors realized the magnitude of the complex led to a change in area building codes.

Now, houses can be no larger than 20,000 square feet -- which is already about four times the size of the largest of the other homes in Sagaponack. Also, any house to be built on parcels of land larger than 25 acres will have to pass a site-plan review.

Changes come too late

But for those who live near the Rennert house, the changes come too late. Already, the house has drawn increased traffic to their community, as construction vehicles rumble to and from the site and the occasional news media truck or casual gawker navigates the narrow roads to see what all the fuss is about.

"It's already the world's most congested parking lot 13 weeks a year," Joseph Dilworth, a stockbroker who lives in Sagaponack, said of the Hamptons in the summertime. "And now, of course, people will want to see the world's largest house. This is a nuisance. This is not what we bargained for, and it's unfair."

Dilworth acknowledges that he, like others, can be accused of trying to stop newcomers from doing exactly what he did several years earlier.

"I, myself, live on a house built on former farmland," Dilworth said. "I'm not exactly in a position of being holier-than-thou on this: 'Now I've got mine, you can't have yours, let's roll up the carpet.'

"But as a practical matter, there is a physical limit. The pendulum has swung too far toward build, build, build. After a certain point, you destroy that which attracted people in the first place.

"We are inadvertently killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

Indeed, residents say, every summer has seemed worse than the summer before -- the traffic ever more unbearable, a decent reservation at this year's fabulous restaurant ever more impossible. And yet for all the hue and cry -- Vonnegut has threatened to leave town if Rennert isn't stopped -- it's unlikely that even the most besieged will pack up and move to, say, the Jersey shore.

"What is my alternative?" said Linda Bird Francke, a writer whose deck once overlooked fields, dunes and ocean, but now is the news media's favored spot from which to shoot footage of Fair Field in progress. "Selling my house and moving out in high moral dudgeon?"

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