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John Nickles, Southold realtor and political leader, remembered for contributions to community

North Fork soil was precious to John J. Nickles Sr.

That the Town of Southold has been able to retain its bucolic character may be attributed in good part to Mr. Nickles’ efforts. It was Mr. Nickles, a real estate broker and key player in Republican Party politics, who was leery of overdevelopment in his hometown and the driving force behind the town’s adoption of 2-acre zoning in 1983.

The change from 1-acre to 2-acre zoning, which remains in place, holds a prominent place in Mr. Nickles’ legacy, along with his reputation for candor. The Southold man died Jan. 12. He was 82.

“My heart is broken,” his wife, Kathleen Goggins Nickles, posted on Facebook that evening. “My husband John has gone to be with God and his family in Heaven today.”

Ms. Goggins Nickles said her husband died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Mr. Nickles, a former Southold Town Republican Party chairman, was active in town government. He served as a town trustee from 1977-79, at which point he was then appointed to fill James Homan’s unexpired term as town councilman. He continued to serve as a councilman until 1983, according to deputy town clerk Sabrina Born.

Known for his quick, dry wit, Mr. Nickles worked in his family’s Southold-based business, Lewis & Nickles, Ltd. Real Estate. His mother, Grace, founded the business in 1934.

Described as the father of the town’s 2-acre zoning concept, Mr. Nickles clearly felt strongly about the issue, even though it may have seemed to run counter to his business interests and caused him to catch heat from fellow realtors and others.

“He put his feelings for the town above his business interests,” former Southold Town Board member George Penny IV said. “He amazed a whole bunch of people, and not everybody knew that he was the one who was responsible for that.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he probably wouldn’t have gotten into politics if it weren’t for Mr. Nickles.

“I think there’s a misnomer out there that Republicans favored development in favor of preservation,” Mr. Russell said. “John was actually one of those people that demonstrated that you can be both — you can be a Republican and a preservationist. You know, John was the one that put 2-acre zoning on the table, an incredibly courageous act. That legislation alone has essentially protected nearly half of the vacant land out here that was ultimately zoned as 2-acre.”

“John had a huge impact,” Mr. Russell continued. “He took the first real huge step in making sure open space and farmland was protected. Two-acre zoning was the first of many initiatives that came along over the years. John knew that we had to step forward and work really hard and take bold action if we’re going to protect and save Southold Town.”

Janice Robinson, a longtime friend, first met Mr. Nickles at a 1980s town meeting and was drawn to his character and willingness to follow his beliefs, regardless of what side of the political aisle they fell on.

“I would say he was not political in the respect that he really cared about the people of Southold Town and what was best for them, not what was best for the Republicans and the Democrats,” Ms. Robinson, who retired in 2013 as the Times Review Media Group senior advertising account representative, said in a phone interview from her home in Gergei, Italy. “I feel he was impartial because he really was concerned for the future of the town. Politics too often is people are doing it for their own personal income and their own personal benefit, and he was the opposite of that.”

Real estate matters aren’t always simple, though. Speaking about the change to 2-acre zoning, Dave Kapell of Kapell Real Estate in Greenport said: “There’s always two schools of thought on upzoning. Some worry that it decreases the value of property. I would argue that, in fact, it increases the value of property. It made Southold that much more exclusive.”

After attending St. Lawrence University, Mr. Nickles worked for CBS before joining the family business. He served as president of the Eastern Suffolk Board of Realtors and the Hamptons and North Fork Real Estate Association and received a Realtor Emeritus award for 50 years of service from the National Association of Realtors.

Mr. Kapell, a former Greenport mayor, said Mr. Nickles was “the dean of the local real estate brokerage businesses, no question about it … I think he was successful to the extent that he remained and that office is one of the only independent [real estate] offices left on the North Fork. I’m one of the others. We’re white elephants now, with most offices having been gobbled up by the national chains, the regional chains. John maintained an independent office, and I admire that. I consider that to be a success.”

Gordon Moore of Southold got to know Mr. Nickles when the two served as elders at Southold Presbyterian Church as well as on church committees together. What Mr. Moore may remember most is Mr. Nickles’ smile.

“It was a mischievous kind of a smile,” Mr. Moore said. “His eyes were always twinkling.”

Even though Mr. Moore is a Democrat, he got along well with Mr. Nickles. “He would always phrase his opinion in a way that you could never take offense at anything he said because he had a way of saying it,” said Mr. Moore.

Mr. Nickles was married to Kathy Claudio for 17 years. They had two children, Kate and John Jr., and two grandchildren. He later remarried and was Kathleen Goggins’ husband for the past 22 years.

“I think we should honor John,” former state senator Kenneth LaValle said. “He meant a lot to the Town of Southold, and it is the kind of town that it is today because of his active role.”

Mr. Penny said: “People who knew John Nickles well loved him. He was that kind of guy. He was gracious. He was polite. Honest to God, he was a model for a lot of people in general. He made a great role model. When he was town leader, he was phenomenal.”