When Joan Denny was appointed to the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals in the fall of 1991, the headline in The East Hampton Star read “Woman Appointed.” At the time, that fact alone was news.
Ms. Denny, who is stepping down from her post, was the first woman to serve on the Z.B.A. Appointed first as an alternate, she was the board’s vice chairwoman for the past several years, stepping in to lead the proceedings when its chairman, Andrew Goldstein, could not.
Among the most notable applications she presided over was that of the East Hampton Library, whose expansion proposal the board reviewed for over half a decade, finally rejecting it last summer only to have the State Supreme Court overrule the decision this spring.
That review process was the longest and also the most contentious of her tenure, she said yesterday, but there were plenty of other “sticky wickets.”
Neighbor versus neighbor disputes that played out before the board often became big news beyond East Hampton because of the big names involved — think Harry Macklowe and Martha Stewart, neighbors on Georgica Pond.
One of the most interesting and difficult applications she helped to review — “because of the semantics” — was that of Alice Lawrence, whose ultramodern house at Wiborg’s Beach challenged the village zoning code’s definitions of “wall” and “fence,” leading to untold hours of discussion and debate. Through that review process, Ms. Denny said, she learned how important it is “to always make the definitions as specific as possible.”
Ms. Denny was active with the Ladies Village Improvement Society for many years before her appointment to the zoning board. Yesterday, she recalled the incident that propelled her into village service. “They had this big meeting in the old V.F.W., where London Jewelers is now. It was about parking.” Neighbors were up in arms because there was talk of tearing down a number of houses on the Circle, behind the East Hampton Cinema, to make room for more parking.
Madeleine Potter, whose family house was on the Circle, “stood up with her cane and started to read this letter that she wrote and she started to cry,” Ms. Denny said. Ms. Denny took the letter and read it for her, then announced that if anyone tried to tear down that house, they would find her standing in front of it.
Mayor Kenneth Wessberg called her the next day and asked if she would be interested in serving on a village board.
“I don’t think many people ever think about village code until it impacts their property,” she said.
As a zoning board member, she has learned over the years that “you can’t prejudge anything,” she said. “When you listen to both sides, it gives you a totally different perspective. That’s what you have to be open to.”