Sag Harbor Planning Session Focuses on Ensuring Inclusion

Sag Harbor Village Trustee Thomas Gardella speaking at a work session last week in Sag Harbor. Peter Boody photo.

The kick-off of Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy’s promised effort to plan for Sag Harbor’s future in a more “holistic” way, as she has put it, took a sudden turn last week when two village trustees, joined by the village attorney, aired their concerns about local working people being left out of the conversation.

“We don’ t have in this room much more than the ex-pat community,” said Trustee James Larocca — referring to people who had come to Sag Harbor from elsewhere —in the midst a sometimes eloquent address he gave the Village Board and about a dozen visitors on the danger of making “elitist assumptions” about the quality-of-life issues important to local people.

“However we go forward with this process,” Mr. Larocca said, “we have to, from this point forward, figure out how to fully engage the rest of Sag Harbor in this, and be very careful that we are not making elitist assumptions about what’s best for the place [that] we have only come to in recent times, and where we don’t always manifest an understanding … of the working lives, the family lives and the struggles and the choices that people have to make here.”

Mr. Larocca spoke after sitting quietly through the first 42 minutes of what was billed as a “long-term planning” conversation at the top of Village Board’s August 28 monthly work session agenda.

During the discussion, which went on for more than an hour, the mayor wrote down on large worksheet mostly one-word answers to five questions she had posted around the room from the dozen spectators and village officials attending the session: what defines Sag Harbor; what good things about it need to be preserved; what bad things need fixing; what is unique about Sag Harbor; and what communities makes up the village and its environs and what are their future needs.

Mr. Larocca’s comments prompted Village Attorney Denise Schoen, a native of East Hampton, to say she doubted her children would be able to afford living in Sag Harbor after college.

“The reason that [local] people aren’t in the room now,” she said, “is not because they don’t care or for lack of advertising. It’s because they gave up a long time ago thinking they had a say.”

Trustee Thomas Gardella, who also had sat silently through most of the session, was moved to describe the heart-wrenching departure of his two oldest daughters the previous weekend.

“This is very emotional for me to speak about,” said the veteran fireman and former chief, who — like Mr. Larocca — was elected to the Village Board when Sag Harbor native Sandra Schroeder was mayor and in June watched her lose her bid for reelection.

“It’s very emotional, you know, to have… my daughter — who’s 30 years old; she’s an adult — hugging me and sobbing because she had to leave Long Island,” Mr. Gardella said. “And also, my other daughter, both of them [are leaving] … Now here’s my youngest daughter, Jenna, who just joined the ambulance because she’s trying to hold on and stay here, she’s hysterical crying, too, because she’s lost her two sisters to the point where, [as] Denise says, they’ve given up.”

“You have to understand these kids were born here, they went to school here, they’ve developed friendships and relationships,” he continued, “with people that live here year ‘round, and they see everybody, the community, changing. Their face is disappearing. All the kids are moving away because there’s no opportunity for them here. It echoes throughout the firehouse and the ambulance. It doesn’t mean we give up. We never give up. We’re always there to do as job because we love the community.”

For his two children still here, Thomas and Jenna, Mr. Gardella added “they have nowhere to go. It’s like I’m going to have to leave and pass the torch to them” if they are to be able to stay.

One attendee, Bob Weinstein, a graphic designer who is a board member of the preservation group Save Sag Harbor, asked Ms. Schoen what she had meant saying local people had “given up.”

“Having a voice or feeling like they could effectuate any change,” Ms. Schoen said. “The voice that are the loudest seem to be getting the response. I don’t feel that way or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“I just have to say I hear you,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I feel like I spend — and the board members of Save Sag Harbor spent — the better part of the last five or six years fighting for the same thing, curbing overdevelopment and keeping community authenticity in size and scale and character.” He added that “when people talk about … an elitist thing, I don’t see that at all. I think we’re completely aligned in wanting the same things.”

Mr. Gardella urged the mayor to set up a commission “for people to get together and have a say,” like the environmental panel she has recently appointed.

“We don’t want Sag Harbor to become Venice, a place that’s very pretty and people come to but nobody lives there,” said Ken Dorph, another participant in the session. “Families are critical.”

“We all have to figure out whether we really understand the community that we’re talking about,” said Mr. Larocca. “Overdevelopment? A lot of people in the community disagree that’s a problem because they work, have day jobs and raise families working in that industry.” “We have to examine whether” Save Sag Harbor’s point of view, he added, “is representative of what we presume it to be among the people who really have boots on the ground in this economy in ways that most of us in this room don’t.”

Mayor Mulcahy said her next steps would be “to create different mission statements” using the concepts and ideas brought up during the session “and going out to the community, to the school, a big outreach to the Chamber of Commerce, all sorts of people, to start getting that environmental analysis of what’s missing” in the village’s existing planning process.