By Kathryn G. Menu
For Janet Lehr, the letter she received from the Sag Harbor Village Building Inspector Tim Platt dated December 23 was “a very unmerry Christmas letter” indeed.
In the letter, Platt informed Lehr and her partner, Ruth Vered, that they had to remove the Larry Rivers sculpture, “Legs,” from the side of their Madison Street residence by January 23.
“Failure to remove the structure will necessitate the issuance of an appearance ticket,” writes Platt. That means if the sculpture is not removed Lehr and Vered could be charged with violating several sections of Sag Harbor Village code and could wind up in front of Sag Harbor Village Justice Andrea Schiavoni.
The letter is another chapter in what has been a years long debate over the legality of the “Legs” sculpture, which was erected on the side of Lehr and Vered’s Madison Street home over two years ago and has become something of a landmark in the village.
Lehr and Vered erected the sculpture in 2008 and subsequently were notified by then-building inspector Al Daniels that the sculpture would in fact need a building permit from the village to remain. Sag Harbor Village Attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr. also made a formal opinion that the sculpture should be considered an accessory structure, and as such needed a building permit to conform with village code without relief from the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals.
However, Lehr and Vered did not apply for a building permit and “Legs” remained. The debate was only revived in June of 2010 after Lehr and Vered sought to replace windows, rotted wood and repaint the historic former Bethel Baptist Church, which they call home.
At a Sag Harbor Village Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board meeting that month, board member Tom Horn, Sr. said he was uncomfortable approving the restoration with the “Legs” issue outstanding.
Lehr and Vered eventually found themselves in front of the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals in an attempt to gain a building permit that would legalize the sculpture. In order to do so, according to the last notice filed on their hearing, Lehr and Vered had to gain four variances from the zoning board. First they needed a variance to permit the “Legs,” which the village is considering an accessory structure, one-foot from the property line where 35-feet are required. The art dealers, who run Vered Gallery in East Hampton, also need a variance for the height of the sculpture, which at 16.1-feet is 1.1-feet higher then allowed by village code. They also need a pyramid law variance and a variance that allows an accessory structure in the front yard, which is illegal under village code.
Through a representative – Clayton Munsey – the zoning board considered the case for several months, and entertained ideas like the “Legs” having a shelf life on Madison Street and having them reduced in their height. However, no agreement was ever finalized and concerns over setting a precedent plagued the zoning board as they looked at the application.
In March of 2011, with board member Michael Bromberg abstaining as an adjacent property is owned by a family member, the board took a straw poll to deny the variance. With no April meeting, in May the zoning board officially denied the request for variances to legalize the “Legs” sculpture, but did so without prejudice should Lehr and Vered decide to submit a new application to the board.
On Tuesday, Lehr said that she and Vered were seriously considering making a new application to the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board and were considering that option as the clock ticks away on the “Legs’” life at their residence.
If the women do not file another application or remove the “Legs” by January 23, they would then be issued an appearance ticket, and according to village attorney Denise Schoen could face a potential fine up to $1,000 for each violation of the Sag Harbor Village code as well as an order by the court to remove the sculpture.
“The goal here is always compliance,” said Schoen on Tuesday.
If the women did reapply for their variances and succeeded in convincing the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals they should have the relief, the sculpture could become legal, provided they also receive formal approval from the village’s ARB.
“It takes my breath away that we may have until January 22 to remove the ‘Legs,’ which we don’t want to do,” said Lehr on Tuesday. “I would like to reiterate the “Legs” are not a thing, are not a structure, they are a work of art and art is a fundamental right. It is protected by the First Amendment.”
Lehr added that Rivers is also an important artist who called Southampton home.
“This should be treasured as opposed to being trivialized,” she said.
Public support for Lehr and Vered keeping the sculpture is enormous, she added.
“Hundreds of people have come by the gallery saying they hope we can keep the ‘Legs,’” said Lehr. “Not one person has said to me the village is right in this. And I watch, and I chuckle, as people walk by and photograph them, or stop their cars to take a picture, and I can see they feel self conscious about photographing someone’s property, but art should be public. It would be a wonderful thing if the village could agree this is in fact special.”