In what has been the most contentious Sag Harbor mayoral election in recent memory, first-term incumbent Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy is seeking to turn back the challenge of Trustee James Larocca, who has served on the Village Board for six years.
In a virtual debate co-sponsored by the Express News Group, Save Sag Harbor and the John Jermain Memorial Library on Friday, both candidates decried the negative tone of the campaign, while pointing the finger at their opponent’s camp for instigating the ill will that has played out in third-party attack ads in the paper and negative commentary on social media.
Ms. Mulcahy, who ran as a political neophyte two years ago, has acknowledged she has had some missteps in a first term largely defined by 15 months of the coronavirus pandemic, but she has said rather than try to assist her in learning the ropes, Mr. Larocca has instead tried to tell her how to do her job, sometimes acted independently of the board, and dismissed initiatives brought forth by herself and the other trustees, without offering positive alternatives.
Mr. Larocca, who has enjoyed a long career in high level positions in state government and the private sector, including serving as the state’s energy commissioner and highway commissioner and as chairman of the Long Island Power Authority and Long Island Association, came out of retirement to serve on the village Planning Board in 2014 and then was appointed by former Mayor Sandra Schroeder to the Village Board in 2015.
In recent months, as the animus between the two has been played out increasingly in public, Mr. Larocca has criticized the mayor for refusing to listen to his expertise, thus missing out on opportunities to obtain grants, and being too quick to support Bay Street Theater’s efforts to acquire the Water Street Shops and National Grid parking lot properties. He has accused the mayor of using her position to help friends keep what he says is a dangerous driveway at their home on Madison Street, although village attorneys say she acted properly. His criticism has extended to the Waterfront Overlay District rezoning effort as well as the launch of paid parking, which is currently being tested in a pilot program on Long Wharf.
“I am breaking a promise to myself that I was never going to run for mayor because in the last couple of years I have become deeply, mortally worried about the condition of our small government and this community that we all love and serve,” Mr. Larocca said. “And I am stepping forward because I think we have some very serious problems we have not been addressing.”
Ms. Mulcahy said she looked forward to working with Bay Street Theater to design an appropriately sized theater on the Water Street Shops site, completing a targeted effort to control development on the waterfront, confronting a host of water-quality issues, and undertaking what will likely be a long-term effort to ease traffic congestion and provide more parking in the village.
“I can’t do this alone. No man or woman should,” she said. “But next week the village has a choice. You can elect someone who thinks that they already know all the answers and only they can do the job, or you can reelect someone who wants to listen and learn and work together for solutions.”
Both candidates say they would like to see Bay Street Theater stay in the village; the only question is where.
“I’ve said numerous times I support Bay Street Theater,” said Ms. Mulcahy. “I support them as an economic driver and a cultural linchpin of our community.” She added she believes the theater has a right to build on the Water Street Shops property, provided it meets the standards of the zoning code and its building is appropriately sized for the location.
“I have only one disagreement with Bay Street Theater and that’s about location,” said Mr. Larocca. “I don’t think a large new building like that for theater should be on the waterfront, especially when there are other sites nearby that are viable.”
Mr. Larocca has proposed at least two alternate sites for the theater, the National Grid gas ball parking lot site, which Friends of Bay Street, the not-for-profit established to find a new home for the theater, has won the lease to, and the former Dodds & Eder property at 11 Bridge Street, which was recently purchased by Adam Potter, the chairman of Friends of Bay Street.
Mr. Larocca has skewered Ms. Mulcahy for having written a letter last summer supporting Bay Street’s effort to buy the National Grid parking lot without informing other board members and potentially losing dozens of parking spaces in the process. He has also accused her of undermining his effort to enlist Southampton Town as a partner to buy the Water Street Shops property to expand Steinbeck Waterfront Park.
Ms. Mulcahy has responded that she only agreed to send the letter supporting Bay Street’s bid after the Village Board decided it could not afford the $4 million to $6 million asking price for the National Grid property and that Mr. Larocca had privately proposed the property as a potential site for Bay Street without providing an alternative for the parking spaces that would be lost. Any deal to buy Water Street Shops was tentative at best, she has said, while questioning where the village would have found its share of the $13.1 million purchase price and whether the park really needs to be expanded.
The candidates have also sparred over the proposed Waterfront Overlay District, an initiative spearheaded by the mayor and Trustee Robert Plumb. Mr. Larocca has criticized the effort from top to bottom and says it focuses on too narrow a portion of the village waterfront.
Ms. Mulcahy said the effort was informed by the approval of three large condos by the developer Jay Bialsky along the waterfront as part of the deal that obtained Steinbeck Park for the village. The structures have been roundly criticized for being too large.
“We started this waterfront zoning because it is vulnerable” and the effort was the fastest and most efficient approach to safeguard it, said Ms. Mulcahy. She added the new zoning would prohibit residential development along the waterfront and require most buildings in the area to be no more than 25 feet tall unless developers agreed to provide waterfront views and access.
Mr. Larocca has also criticized the makeup of the committee overseeing the drafting of the new zoning law, saying there was no environmentalist on it, and arguing the process was closed because only two board members, Ms. Mulcahy and Mr. Plumb, were allowed to participate. He contrasted that to Ms. Mulcahy’s promise during her last campaign to run an open government.
But Ms. Mulcahy said the committee provided 17 public updates during its work and could not legally have more than two Village Board members serving on it, without constituting a formal meeting of that board. She dismissed Mr. Larocca’s complaint about the lack of input from environmentalists, saying the people who have led the work have degrees in environmental planning.
Mr. Larocca said Ms. Mulcahy had broken her promise to undertake a village-wide master plan update when elected, but she responded that the board had agreed to set that project aside, pending an update of its Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, which provides guidelines for waterfront development.
The candidates have found a rare point of agreement on the need to take urgent steps to protect the village’s water quality, with both supporting the expansion of the area served by the sewage treatment plant, encouraging the use of modern residential wastewater treatment systems to reduce the amount of nitrogen seeping into ground and surface waters, and continuing efforts to improve water quality at Havens Beach.
Both candidates also said finding solutions to traffic congestion and parking woes were important, with Mr. Larocca favoring a traffic study as part of a master plan update, while Ms. Mulcahy said she would propose a standalone study if reelected.The mayor said she supports shuttle services like RoveLoop, which recently began offering low-cost transportation within a 2.5-mile radius of the village and pitched the idea of a local water taxi to bring people downtown and back home. She also supports the effort to create limited paid “premium” parking in the village, saying that it is one of the few ways, other than parking tickets, that the village can collect revenue from outsiders who pour into the village, straining its infrastructure. Mr. Larocca said he completely disagreed.
“We’ve lost track of serving the working families of this village when we would give away parking … to the highest bidder,” he said.
The two bickered more when Mr. Larocca said another 25 to 30 parking spaces could be found “simply by an intelligent walk-around with the right professionals to reconfigure what we have.”
Ms. Mulcahy said “the spray can solution” had been approved by the board last January, but that the village Department of Public Works, to which Mr. Larocca is the liaison, had not done it yet.
“The department hasn’t done what you’ve ordered, and you are blaming me?” Mr. Larocca asked.
“Yes, I do expect the trustee who works with the department to help make it happen,” she replied.
In addressing the need for more affordable housing in the village, Mr. Larocca said he was a founder of the Long Island Housing Partnership, which has developed more than 2,000 affordable housing units over the past two-plus decades, and, if elected, would ask that organization to come in and help the village try to find solutions to its housing problem.
“Why are we waiting until day one?” asked Ms. Mulcahy. “Let’s bring them out tomorrow. If you have some way to help us, let’s get that going.”