Richard Persico led the Adirondack Park Agency through its tumultuous early years
By Tim Rowland
In 1973, years’ worth of exceedingly painstaking scouting, planning, mapping, theorizing, lawyering, writing, editing, re-editing and counter-editing had been distilled into one typewritten sheaf of paperwork, the finely crafted legislation authorizing that would become magnum opus for top-down zoning in the Adirondack Park. It was scarcely hyperbole to say that this document would directly affect the lives of everyone living in or visiting that park forevermore.
And it was missing.
This of course was in the days that preceded file sharing and Google Docs. Last minute changes were penciled into the margins of the one copy of existence, and then the whole shebang was typed up and stuffed into the briefcase of Bill Kissel, who, along with fellow attorney and state planner Richard Persico, decided to celebrate the end of a long exhaustive process with a nightcap.
The briefcase, destined to become the Amelia Earhart of attachés, made it to the bar, then vanished forever without a trace. Only one thing saved them: At the last minute, Persico had decided to make a copy — a time-consuming process on the relatively new technology known as the Xerox machine. “It was quite late, and those days when you finished you went out for a drink,” Kissel said. “We were literally out of the door when he said, ‘I think I’ll make a copy.’ I said, ‘no, no, let’s do it in the morning,’ but he insisted.”
It would not be the last time that Persico, who passed away last month at the age of 88, would ride to the rescue of Adirondack land use law and the agency charged with its enforcement.
Later named the Adirondack Park Agency’s first executive director, he took the reins of “a very underfunded agency that had a ridiculous assignment,” said Brad Edmondson, whose book “A Wild Idea” documents the birth of Adirondack land-use planning, and recounts the briefcase story. “He steered the APA along a sustainable path that allowed its continued existence.”
During his impactful career, Persico was at the center of other environmental flashpoints, including the cleanup of Love Canal and Hudson River PCBs, which he addressed while serving as deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In 1987, he worked on the constitutional amendment expanding Whiteface Mountain ski trails, while serving as general counsel to the Olympic Regional Development Agency.
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But for all his many and varied accomplishments, it was his involvement with what former APA lawyer and Executive Director Bob Glennon describes as the “Big Bang” of Adirondack land-use law for which Persico will be most remembered.
Persico not only drafted the legislation, he became the first executive director of the agency charged with enforcing the new law, which was effectively a zoning ordinance for a territory the size of Vermont. Hated by locals, viewed with suspicion by hard-line environmentalists, Dick Persico was the essential leavening agent for achievable wilderness protection, and the embodiment of the axiom that if both sides are irritated with you, you must be doing something right.
To those who knew him best, Persico was a skilled strategist with a warm sense of humor who mentored and cared deeply for those with whom he worked.
“As the first Executive Director of the Adirondack Park Agency, Persico’s leadership ensured the agency survived the tumultuous early years. “The Adirondack Park Agency is forever grateful for the momentous accomplishments of Richard Persico. All staff are motivated and inspired knowing that we truly follow in the footsteps of giants.”— Keith McKeever, APA Public Information Officer
To the people who lived it, this is not an overstatement. “We definitely had the sense that something big was happening,” said Glennon, whose resume includes surprising and tackling a would-be arsonist who was trying to burn down the original APA headquarters.
Native Adirondackers in the early ’70s realized that something big was happening as well, and weren’t terribly pleased about it. Many felt they were losing the right to do with their private property as they pleased, and part of Persico’s job was to absorb their blows.
“He was the embodiment of the big, bad state,” Edmondson said. “But he was very, very skillful, and it was this cunning that allowed Persico to succeed.” For example, he would quietly meet with town supervisors and develop some level of understanding, even as the people in their towns were shaking their pitchforks.
Unlike some of the environmentalists, Persico felt that at least a small amount of local buy-in was crucial to the law’s overall success. “He would say the plan needs to be balanced, and that we needed to take local concerns into consideration,” Kissel said. “He would say it’s not as much what the message is, as much as how you deliver that message.”
The strategy was successful, but barely. “A lot of the anger was directed right at him; I don’t know how he did it sometimes,” Kissel said.
The son of blue-collar glove makers living in Gloversville, Persico was not a child of privilege, as were many leading environmentalists at the time. This perhaps gave him a better understanding of the great crowds of angry people who would descend at public hearings demanding the whole land-use plan be scrapped.
“He spent a lot of time mending fences and building bridges,” Edmondson said. “He took the wind out of the sails of the APA haters.”
But that took compromise, and some felt the Adirondack wilderness was too valuable to play politics with. Peter Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of Adirondack land-use law, said he and Persico worked closely in drafting the early legislation, an area in which Persico was remarkably skilled. But as the future law was being written, “I would get thrown out of the room because I wouldn’t agree to concessions,” Paine said.
But once the law was passed, Persico’s political skills were invaluable. “He had the genius of (avoiding) areas that he knew would be a dead end,” Paine said. “He became executive director of the APA when its very existence was at stake. In those critical early years, I don’t think it would have survived without him.”
The APA’s beginnings
Read our nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. Adapted from the new book “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks,” author Brad Edmondson interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
Those who worked with him described him as a friend with charm and humor who was never too busy to sit down and explain complex concepts to newbies. “He was an incredible guy, very talented and very committed,” Kissel said. “There wasn’t anyone more qualified than him, and beyond that he was just a swell guy.”
And he understood the value, when events warrant, of tiptoeing out of the room.
Glennon recalled standing at the back of a packed auditorium at the Clifton-Fine Central School during a speak-out sponsored by the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. There were “hundreds of people, all loudly proclaiming the evils of the APA,” Glennon said. “We were very glad to see a number of State Troopers standing in the back with us.”
Especially when the executive director of the board made note of their presence, and hundreds of heads turned to face the enemy. With renewed energy the angry comments kept coming until the meeting’s end — at which point the two bureaucrats noticed that the troopers had disappeared.
“We somehow made it to Dick’s little two-seater car in the unlit parking lot,” Glennon recalled. “Just at that very second, with one foot in the car, there came a voice out of the pitch black: ‘Hey fellas, could I talk to you?’ My life flashed before my eyes, but it turned out the guy was civil — just had a few questions.”
Which Dick Persico, as always, was more than happy to answer.