By Claire Walla
“We’re not looking at it as art, but as a non-conforming structure,” said Zoning Board of Appeals member Brendan Skislock of the 16’ 1” pair of legs standing along the northern wall of 161 Madison Street near downtown Sag Harbor.
All ZBA members repeated this message during Tuesday night’s planning session as the Board met with Vered (who chooses to go by her last name) and Janet Lehr to discuss the fate of “Larry Rivers’ Legs,” the sculpture designed by Rivers in late-60s that now rests along the northern side of the two women’s property.
The Legs currently violate four sections within Chapter 55 of the Village Zoning Code.
However, the meeting ended at a standstill. All parties agreed that certain elements of the Planning Code needed to be clarified by the Village Attorney, Anthony Tohill (who happened to be out sick), before a well-informed decision could be made. The ZBA will revisit the case at its next session October 19.
“The Board made the correct decision,” said Janet Lehr after the meeting. Though she and Vered came expecting to get the final word on their appeal, the Board was on-the-fence about certain legal aspects of the case. Had she and Vered pressed for a decision that night, and had it not gone in their favor, it would have been to their great detriment. According to Board member Gayle Pickering, in order to overturn a decision at that point, Lehr and Vered would have to sue and prove that the Board did not adequately hear their case. (In other words, it would be quite difficult.)
The hot topic now, as the debate continues, concerns the difference between two very similar words: “sculpture” and “structure.” Vered and Lehr purchased the sculpture in 2008 to adorn their property, the former Bethel Baptist Church. They placed the sculpture on a narrow strip of grass along the side of the house, just one foot away from the sidewalk; so, as a safety precaution they secured it into place by laying cement around its base.
According to the zoning board, this is where the trouble begins.
For the duration of Tuesday night’s meeting, the ZBA was operating under the impression that it’s the presence of the cement that actually makes the Legs a structure instead of a sculpture, and by calling it a structure the Board must attach zoning code regulations.
“Ok, so I’ll remove the cement,” Vered told the Board in attempt to put the issue to rest.
But the Board could not respond. This was a stumper, and just one example of why the Board hesitated to make a decision without Mr. Tohill’s presence.
As it stands now, in order for the Legs to be considered a legitimate structure they will need to be moved another 34 feet away from the property line (they are currently within a couple feet of both the sidewalk and the house) and they will need to lose about 13 inches off the top (structures should not exceed 15 feet).
“It needs to be moved to a conforming location,” Pickering said after Vered stated her case.
“But, the house is not conforming,” Vered retored.
This seemed to resonate. Member Anthony Hagel said he was “happy to hear the owner’s presentation,” agreeing that “it is unusual in a residential district for a building to come right up to the sidewalk.”
Whereas initially Board members expressed their concerns over making a decision that might set a precedent for future ZBA cases, all seemed content with postponing the decision until October, when Mr. Tohill could better advise discussions.
Other members of the 10-person audience spoke-out about the cultural significance of prominently displaying Rivers’ work of art: photographer Paul Ickovic pressed it as a matter of First Amendment rights (which he read for the crowd), and Vered’s and Lehr’s neighbor Charlie McCarron expressed outrage over the visible presence of art that, in his opinion, has nothing to do with the history of the town. On both accounts, however, the Board reiterated the fact that it’s not a matter of debating the legitimacy of the art itself.
Before the meeting adjourned, community member and local shop owner Susan Youngblood briefly addressed the Board. “What if [the artwork] wasn’t on the ground, but was mounted on the side of the building?”
Again, the Board was stumped. Pickering said that, according to Village Zoning Code, mounted objects can’t extend out further than 18 inches, but beyond that she wasn’t sure if the Legs could legally be affixed to the side of the building.
“Because it would be a shame if you have a no-win situation,” Youngblood continued. “There’s just nowhere else [on the property] to put them.”