Homeowners Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered are expected to come before the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals this February or March. When they do, whether or not the famed Larry Rivers “Legs” striding across their residence on Madison Street should even be subject to zoning will be a question raised by Lehr and Vered’s new attorney, Richard A. Hammer.
Hammer, known locally as Andy, is a Montauk attorney with the firm Biondo and Hammer, and a former East Hampton Town Assistant Attorney, whose law practice focuses on land use and zoning. He was hired by Lehr and Vered to handle their years long case with the Village of Sag Harbor in attempt to keep the Rivers “Legs” sculpture, which has reached almost iconic status in the village, on the side of their home.
According to Sag Harbor Village Attorney Denise Schoen, Hammer has filed an application with the village’s building department that will be referred to the zoning board of appeals.
The applicants, art dealers and collectors who run the Vered Gallery in East Hampton Village, first erected the sculpture in 2008. Then building inspector Al Daniels notified the women the sculpture would need a building permit to remain. Sag Harbor Village Attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr. also issued an opinion that the sculpture should in fact be deemed a structure under the village code, and therefore would have to meet all the requirements of the village code without relief from the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals.
For over a year, the issue remained unaddressed. Lehr and Vered never filed for a building permit and the “Legs” remained. However, in 2010 when they sought to replace windows and rotting wood, and repaint the historic former church, which they have restored, the Sag Harbor Village Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board (ARB) revived the debate.
Thiele reaffirmed his position in 2010 that the sculpture should in fact be deemed a structure and called it unreasonable to expect the Village of Sag Harbor to define art, which is what it would have to do to exempt the “Legs” from the zoning code.
In May of 2011, the zoning board of appeals denied Lehr and Vered’s application without prejudice, leaving the door open for them to re-file and argue the case again. After several months, in a letter dated December 23, Lehr and Vered received notice from Sag Harbor Village Building Inspector Tim Platt stating they needed to remove the sculpture from the side of their residence within 30 days or face potential citations from the Village of Sag Harbor.
On Monday, on the 30-day deadline, the “Legs” remained and Schoen said in light of the new application she was unsure whether or not Platt would cite Lehr and Vered or if he would wait to hear the outcome of the zoning board of appeals case.
On Wednesday morning, Platt declined to comment.
In order to comply with village codes for accessory structures, Lehr and Vered would need to gain four variances — one to permit the sculpture to sit a foot from the property line where 35-feet are required, another for the height of the sculpture, which at 16.1-feet is just 1.1-feet higher than allowed by village code, a third to comply with the village’s pyramid law and a fourth that allows an accessory structure in the front yard, illegal under village code.
If approved by the zoning board of appeals, the sculpture would also have to receive a certificate of appropriateness from the Sag Harbor ARB as it has been erected in the historic district.
On Wednesday morning, Hammer said he was just recently retained and was still reviewing the case.
“I would say, at first blush, I feel this is not a zoning related issue and a curious file in terms of how they got in front of the zoning board of appeals,” said Hammer.
“My feeling is the structure is clearly an artistic expression of some form and I am not sure whether or not it should be regulated as a structure from a zoning perspective,” he continued. “I am not sure what distinction makes this different from any other artistic expression, whether that be a fountain or a flag or a plaque.”
Hammer said he would like to hear a well thought out response from the village about what does distinguish the “Legs” from other forms of artistic expression.
“My initial feeling here is by saying it is allowable — but has to meet a setback — is regulating the context of free speech,” said Hammer. “By saying, we think your artistic expression is okay, but we will tell you where it is allowable, now you talking about regulating the context of the structure.”
That being said, Hammer said he hopes that an intelligent dialogue can emerge about the case, and that it should not be a case viewed on whether or not anyone likes the “Legs,” but rather whether Lehr and Vered have the right to express themselves freely.
“I don’t think, looking at the structure, that this is a situation where public health, safety or welfare issues are at hand,” said Hammer, noting it does not impede traffic flow or other issues that would dictate this a question of zoning.
Hammer said the case was interesting because it does involve artistic expression and revolves around a sculpture created by an artist who once lived in Southampton and displayed the first cast of sculpture at his studio, much to the chagrin of River’s neighbors.
“If Jackson Pollock sculptures were displayed in Springs would this be an issue,” wondered Hammer.