Ever Mindful of the Zoning Balance

The job ‘gets harder as the lawyers get craftier,’ says new village chairwoman
There is always “that pull between ‘this is my land . . . I can do with it what I want’ and the fact that you’re part of a community and you have to respect the laws of the community,” said Lys Marigold, the new chairwoman of the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals. Durell Godfrey

When the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals meets at 11 a.m. tomorrow, it will be the first meeting in that body’s 93-year history — in everyone’s recollection, at least — with a woman as the chair.

Lys Marigold, who has served on the board for a decade and became its vice chairwoman in 2013, was appointed chairwoman at the village board’s Dec. 21 meeting. (Joan Denny, who was on the board from 1991 to 2011, also served as its vice chairwoman.) She succeeds Frank Newbold, a longtime member who was appointed chairman in 2013 and tendered his resignation last month. Ray Harden, who had been an alternate on the board, was appointed vice chairman. 

Ms. Marigold leads a board charged with balancing the rights of property owners with the village government’s effort to maintain a historical and aesthetically pleasing character. It must parse sometimes quirky language in the zoning code and navigate similarly peculiar circumstances on the ground — unusually shaped lots that render setback requirements impossible to meet, for example, and adjacent properties with their own unique characteristics and conditions — all while reining in the grandiose architectural visions of some property owners. Sometimes, it is the reluctant mediator between fuming neighbors. 

The board is mindful of setting precedent by granting variance relief to override the code’s parameters. Today, it is common for an applicant’s representatives — usually an attorney, architect, land-use consultant, or a combination of these — to persist in seeking relief that flouts the spirit of the zoning code, if not the letter. 

Applications to the zoning board can certainly be eye opening, if not mind-boggling. Ms. Marigold recalled, as an example, a recent applicant who sought a 6,000-square-foot garage. “In the old days,” she said last Thursday, “a garage was a one or two-car garage.” 

The board is engaged in “this constant give and take with lawyers, trying to stay ahead of them, which provides a challenge. . . . It seems to me the challenge grows every year instead of lessens. I think it gets harder as the lawyers get craftier about how to get around our code.” 

In recent years, as new construction tended to make use of every square inch of allowable coverage, the village amended its code, moving to rein in massive houses by adding graduated formulas for the maximum allowable floor area and coverage based on lot size, which was denounced by many property owners and resulted in a lawsuit. Worried about more bedrooms and the density that follows, the board moved to counter another trend by prohibiting a basement from extending beyond the footprint of a house’s first floor. “We are constantly working with the mayor and the board, trying to modify the code to prevent things,” Ms. Marigold said. 

“There’s been an awful lot of disrespect in the last years, or playing the code,” she said. As an example, a screened-in porch is not counted in a floor-area calculation, “and right in the middle of an enormous house they’ll put screens on the front of the room and say that it doesn’t count. The reason the code was done that way was to restrict massive buildings.” Or, perhaps, “they want a bowling alley! Or their breakfast nook can only seat 10 and they want 12.” Ever present, she said, is “that pull between ‘This is my land, I bought it, I can do with it what I want,’ and the fact that you’re part of a community and you have to respect the laws of the community.” 

When an application is before the board, each member visits the property in question. “There’s a big difference between reading an application and going there,” Ms. Marigold said. “Sometimes I read an application in the quiet of my bedroom and think, ‘This is horrible,’ and then I go there and realize the nearest house is far away, or they’re next to a common driveway, and I change my mind about it. You have to be open-minded, flexible, and not stick to the code exactly, otherwise there would never be any variances given.”

Succeeding Mr. Newbold will be its own challenge, Ms. Marigold said. The former chairman was unfailingly polite, delivering the most unwelcome news — denial of an application — kindly and with a smile. “He did a lot of homework, he was very fair, and very unruffled, and I was always very hot-headed,” she said. On their “zoning safaris,” during which they examined properties and discussed applications, “Sometimes I would say to him, ‘I don’t think we should listen to this application. It is so outrageous, if I were chair I’d say go back to your architect and then come and not ask for eight variances on a brand-new application.’ I could never get him to be that blunt. Maybe I will be.”