Person of Year 2019: James Larocca

Sag Harbor Village Trustee James Larocca addresses the crowd at the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park. Dana Shaw photo

In the summer of 2015, when Sag Harbor Village announced it would try to buy a spit of land between the Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge and 7-Eleven Parking lot for the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, its owners, who had long envisioned developing it with condominiums, basically said, “Take a hike.”

But James Larocca, who had come out of retirement after a long and distinguished career in state government to serve on the village board that same year, took the view that positions, even those seemingly anchored in bedrock, were subject to change with the right amount of pressure and friendly persuasion.

“Start with the premise that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add a significant public amenity,” he said when the village announced its intention to create the park to be named after the Nobel Prize-winning author who made Sag Harbor his home late in life. “The path to getting it all done is not an easy one, and I can recite any number of obstacles, but the case for using the last major undeveloped waterfront parcel in the village for a public amenity like a park is a very strong one.”

Fast-forward to August 20, 2019. Exactly four years and two days after the village formally requested that Southampton Town use money from the Community Preservation Fund to buy the 1.25-acre parcel, it had its park.

It was no easy feat considering the thorny relationship between the village and the original owners who often battled one another in court. Nor did it help that the property changed hands during the negotiations. Then there was a monkey wrench thrown into the works when an initial town appraisal of the property erroneously valued it at far below its asking price.

Nominated By His Colleagues

With the property now secured and plans underway for its transformation into a civic center, those involved in the effort say it was largely achieved because of Mr. Larocca’s quiet and measured behind-the-scenes persistence

“If it wasn’t for Jim that park never would have happened,” said former village Trustee Ken O’Donnell. “He brought it across the finish line.”

“In these days of everyone being so politically polarized, Jim is the guy who will have a conversation with someone he doesn’t agree with just so he can come to a better understanding of the issue and make a better decision,” he added.

Mr. O’Donnell was one of several people to nominate Mr. Larocca as Sag Harbor’s Person of the Year for 2019.

Another was Mr. Larocca’s fellow trustee, Aidan Corish. He pointed to Mr. Larocca’s life experience — among other roles, Mr. Larocca served as the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, the largest agency in the state — as being invaluable to the village board during the process.

“He brought a professionalism to our board and its deliberations that most villages don’t have,” he said. “It helped enormously in the negotiations for Steinbeck Park.”

The landscape architect Ed Hollander, whose firm has volunteered to design the park, also nominated Mr. Larocca for the Person of the Year award. He said he had first worked with Mr. Larocca three decades ago on the West Way project in New York City early in his career as a landscape architect when Mr. Larocca was head of the DOT.

“One of the things I think he learned in his professional life is how to get things done with difficult people,” Mr. Hollander said. “If you can be head of the New York State DOT, you have to know how to work around obstacles.”

During the Steinbeck Park effort, “every time we approached an impasse either with the town, the developer, or the various other entities that were involved, Jim was the lubricant who figured out how to loosen the lock,” Mr. Hollander said. “He knew what needed to be done and how to do it. Without him, there is no park.”

Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said Mr. Larocca brought a deep understanding of the political process to the park project as well as other village business.

“He knows everyone in politics right down to the people working in the Municipal Building,” she said. “What’s great about that is he is able to make things happen in mere minutes that would take other mortals days or weeks.”

Ms. Mulcahy credited her predecessor, Sandra Schroeder, for having made the park purchase a priority and Mr. Larocca for his efforts in seeing the project to fruition.

“He was like a dog with a bone,” she said. “He never stopped working to make this park work and now to make it as beautiful and perfect as possible.”

Former Mayor Schroeder also praised Mr. Larocca for his dedication to the effort. “He was always there with me,” she said of the early efforts to entice the owners to sell. “When he didn’t know something, he knew who to call to get the information.”

“Jim has been a pleasure to work with as he serves on the village board,” said Lisa Field, the president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “He understands the needs of the business community and how these businesses relate to the village of Sag Harbor as a whole. He is fair and balanced in his approach to problem solving, and he is always willing to listen. His work on the creation of Steinbeck Park will benefit residents and visitors alike for years to come.”

A Tough Sell

The property’s original developer, East End Ventures, whose principals Emil Telal and Michael Maidan had a stormy relationship with the village over their plans to build condos at the site, had tentatively agreed to allow the village to develop a park on a smaller portion of their property, but had never been open to an outright sale.

In the summer of 2015, East End Ventures sold the property to Greystone Development Partners, a New York real estate firm. Greystone, at first, said it was not interested in selling either, but soon enough its representatives sat down at the table with village officials.

When Greystone turned around and sold the property to Jay Bialsky, a Sagaponack developer, part of Mr. Bialsky’s interest in the deal was that his development was slated to have a park next to it, Ms. Schroeder said.

“All’s well that ends well,” said Mr. Larocca in a recent interview. He said it was frustrating how long the process took, but he pointed out the sale of the land and a change in leadership in Southampton Town slowed things down.

Still, he said, it has gratifying to see the community’s support for the park, which he said was shown in the outpouring of volunteerism after the purchase last August. The demolition of derelict buildings, erection of a fence, and grading and seeding were all done by volunteers.

“We have living proof of people’s interest and appetite for parkland and fewer condos,” he said.

A Distinguished Career

Although Mr. Larocca, 76, has played a major role in Sag Harbor’s civic life for the past four years, it was Southampton College that brought him to the East End.

He and his wife Dale moved to North Haven in 2000 when he was named the dean of the college in a last-ditch effort to save it. After the school was closed, the Laroccas stayed in the area, moving to a house in Sag Harbor.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, who served two tours in Vietnam, Mr. Larocca, had recently retired from the state’s Public Service Commission and was chatting with then Mayor Brian Gilbride during the Memorial Day Parade in 2014 when Mr. Gilbride asked him if he would be willing to fill an opening on the village Planning Board. He accepted the appointment, only to be asked by Ms. Schroeder to compete her term on the village board after she was elected mayor a year later.

When Mr. Larocca joined the village board, Mr. O’Donnell said he was impressed. “You look at this guy’s resume and you wonder why is he going to waste his time on the village board,” he said.

And it is quite the resume After his return from Vietnam, the Brooklyn-born Mr. Larocca, a graduate of Hofstra University, worked on Capitol Hill for the New York representatives in Congress for seven years while putting himself through law school at Catholic University.

He joined the administration of Governor Hugh Carey, where he served as deputy secretary and director of federal affairs. He was then named New York’s first commissioner of energy, during a time when the state first turned its attention to exploring renewable energy and weaning itself of nuclear power. He became DOT commissioner under Governor Mario Cuomo and later served as president of the Long Island Association, the chairman of the Long Island Power Authority, and on numerous other government, civic, and business boards.

The Laroccas have three grown children and six grandchildren.

Mr. Larocca, whose current term on the village board ends in June, did not say if he would seek another term, but he expressed enthusiasm about the next phase of the Steinbeck Park planning when a committee made up of community members will be asked for their recommendations for it.

He said he is pleased to see the space already attracting visitors, but said much more can be achieved.

Mr. Corish agreed. “In some respects, the park, over the years, will define the village,” he said. “There’s going to be a long-term effect we haven’t even begun to see yet.”

“In a perfect world, we start in September 2020 and are done by May 2022,” said Mr. Hollander. “But you know what living in a perfect world is like, right? Living in Sag Harbor. We need to keep Jim around for a long time to help with this.”