Tara Newman purposefully drives or walks past Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered’s Madison Street home each day, to admire Larry Rivers’ sculpture, “Legs,” and she is not alone.
“This is art, no question,” said Newman during a Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Tuesday night. “Larry Rivers’ was not just some local guy, and this is not just some sculpture, but the work of a world renowned artist.”
Newman was one of scores of people who came out mostly in support, though some opposed, the longstanding application of Lehr and Vered to legalize the 16-foot sculpture by the Village of Sag Harbor’s standards under its zoning code.
In a village not unaccustomed to debate, or art for that matter, in the last two years this story has evolved into a discussion about the right of a property owner to display expression as a Constitutional right versus whether a sculpture like the “Legs” should be defined as a structure.
For the first time since 2008, on Tuesday night, an attorney, Richard A. Hammer of Montauk, known locally as “Andy,” represented Lehr and Vered in their quest to keep the “Legs” planted next to their home, the former Bethel Baptist Church.
Hammer challenged the zoning board to consider Lehr and Vered’s right to Freedom of Expression, noting that similar methods of expression are not regulated by the village’s zoning code, such as flagpoles or birdbaths, for example. He added that if the “Legs” were to be considered a “structure,” the board could still state that it does not violate the basic principals in zoning — that is it does not benefit Lehr and Vered while proving a detriment to the health, safety and welfare of residents in Sag Harbor.
Down two members — ZBA Chair Gayle Pickering was away for Tuesday’s meeting and Michael Bromberg, who has relatives with homes nearby, has recused himself from hearing the application — the zoning board ultimately decided to table the application. By doing so, they will allow a 10-day period for new public comment, and give Pickering time to review the record and become involved in the decision making process.
The next zoning board of appeals meeting is scheduled for March 20 at 6:30 p.m.
However, on Tuesday night it was clear Hammer gave the board a lot to consider, and while the crowd packed into the second floor meeting room of the Municipal Building, including members of the media brandishing video cameras, so did two neighbors who opposed the “Legs” and the impact it has had on their properties.
Hammer presented the zoning board with a petition in support of the “Legs” remaining on Madison Street 430 names strong. He also offered 62 letters of support including from Larry Rivers Foundation Director David Joel, David Levy of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Helen Harrison of the Pollock Krasner Foundation.
Hammer called on the zoning board to vote against building inspector Tim Platt’s determination that the “Legs” were a structure, noting that as the village code reads, a structure could be virtually anything from a birdhouse to a flagpole or pergola or even a seasonal decoration. When speaking to Platt about the code’s lack of definition when it comes to what is excluded in the definition of a “structure,” Hammer said Platt informed him it fell to his common sense.
Hammer questioned whether the village code was in fact designed to regulate a case like this.
“If everything is a structure, common sense has to prevail on what is regulated and what is not,” argued Hammer. He noted in East Hampton and Southampton towns, sculptures are allowed under code with a building permit designed, not to prevent it from being erected, but to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents, as all codes are meant to ultimately do.
The “Legs,” he continued, have no accessory benefit to Lehr and Vered, not providing storage, shade or lighting, for example, and other than their existence do not have a function associated with their residential property as is common with accessory structures.
“It’s a vehicle for the exercise of a fundamental right of free speech and expression and an integral part of the Sag Harbor community,” said Hammer to the cheers of many in the crowd.
Hammer further argued that if Vered and Lehr were required to move the sculpture to conform with village standards for a sculpture this would be regulating the content of free speech into a backyard.
Displays by veterans groups, or others, continued Hammer, are expressions not relegated to backyards.
Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals acting chairman Brendan Skislock said the zoning board could not look at this application in terms of art, but as it has been defined as a structure. He asked Hammer for decisions or cases in the village with similar setback concerns.
As a “structure” under the village code, Lehr and Vered need three variances. The “Legs” are located a foot from the property line where 35-feet is required, and are seated at 16.1-feet high where 15-feet is the maximum allowed. They sculpture also protrudes into the sky plane 16.7 cubic feet more than allowed under the code.
Hammer questioned whether the benefit to Lehr and Vered outweighed any detriment on the community or a violation of the character of the community. Under those standards, even as a structure, the board could approve the “Legs” to stay, said Hammer.
He added unlike non-conforming decks, it would be difficult to find a comparable example to the “Legs” in Sag Harbor.
“To play devils’ advocate, and maybe this is fine, but what if someone two blocks away was going to come in and ask for a variance and say, ‘I am only one foot away from the property line and you gave this structure an approval’ and then you had 10 more homes, 20 more homes or 150 more homes come in,” said Skislock.
Hammer said while he understood concerns over precedent setting, in this case it could be something to celebrate if 150 homes erected sculptures similar to Lehr and Vered, although he questioned how the sculpture could ever be compared by another attorney to a garage a foot away from the property line — something that could increase noise, odors or light and affect neighbors.
Sag Harbor Village Attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr. urged Hammer to focus on the “Legs” being considered a structure, noting there is case law that backs the village up.
“The second part is more pragmatic,” he said. “What I think is art and what you think is art and what everyone in this room thinks is art is going to be different. The last thing you want is for government to determine what art is.”
Hammer said that in addition to the “Legs” not impacting neighbors in a negative way, Rivers was a renowned local artist and that should be considered as well.
“I don’t share your vision for Sag Harbor where you stated you would welcome the development of 150 such structures in Sag Harbor in the future,” said board member Anton Hagen. “You state the precedence setting nature of our decision would further that goal you see as positive and I disagree with that.”
Both Skislock and board member Benedetta Duebel agreed with Hagen’s concerns about setting a precedent, with Skislock offering that perhaps the village code should be revised.
Sag Harbor resident Brian O’Leary, who said he knew Rivers dating back to 1983, said the artist would likely be amused that his sculpture could be banned in Sag Harbor.
“Sag Harbor should be proud his beautiful, whimsical sculpture lives in our village,” said O’Leary. “If the building was still a church and there was an equal size crucifix hanging on the wall, would you be asking the congregation to take it down?”
David Joel, the director of the Larry Rivers Foundation said he was concerned that through this debate the work of a great artist was being deemed “not art.”
“They have been documented in books, documented as art,” said Joel. “You don’t have to go reaching into some strange atmosphere to determine this art.”
“If it’s art, it shouldn’t be before this board,” said Hagen.
“I agree, 100 percent,” said Joel.
“We have no standing then,” said Skislock.
“Maybe you should recognize this should not come before you and you should not be in the uncomfortable decision of having to decide this,” said Joel. “The precedent you are setting here is the precedent of this is not art.”
“The issue being lost here is no one has said you cannot put up a sculpture in the Village of Sag Harbor,” said Thiele, after Duebel noted if a sculpture meets setbacks it is allowed as a structure.
“You have the ability to say this is not a structure,” added Hammer. “You could simply say this is not a structure, it’s art and kick it back to the board of trustees.”
However, not all supported Lehr and Vered, including Jennifer Houser, a former trustee and local businesswoman, who owns two houses facing the “Legs”
“This is not, for me, about art,” she said. “This is about living in the historic district of Sag Harbor and clarifying the codes that have been put in place. Again, this is not about art, but the precedent it sets.”
Houser, who said the “Legs” are illuminated at night, said she believes this has become a business opportunity for Lehr and Vered, and asked the board to uphold the standards of the historic district.
“I think the precedent you might want to consider not setting is censoring art in Sag Harbor,” said resident Duncan Hale, who wondered if he would soon be cited for the stone statue he has in his yard, three-feet from the property line.
“For the future of Sag Harbor and the artistic community, I am concerned there is a fear of what will happen if, God forbid, another person chooses to put another sculpture into their yard,” said artist and businesswoman Elizabeth Dow, who recently purchased the former Sag Harbor Methodist Church which she is converting into her textile design studio. “I believe if someone is to erect some sculpture of a certain size there should be a building permit for safety’s sake.”
However, Dow said with the confusion about the definitions of “art” and “sculpture” it should not be up to this board and they should dismiss it.
Noyac resident Charles McCarron, who owns a neighboring residence to Vered and Lehr, said he opposed the sculpture being lit. He noted that in order to do anything in Sag Harbor Village, including shingle a house, a permit is needed and he questioned why this should be different.
“I don’t know if it is art or not, but I don’t like them and I am a neighbor,” said McCarron. “Jennifer doesn’t like them and she is a neighbor.”
After the hearing, Vered was elated by Hammer’s performance, and said ultimately the application should stand on its own rather than the board choosing otherwise out of concerns for the next application.
“In this country, every decision should stand on its own and is important,” she said. “That is the kind of freedom we want — not to have everyone in one bag and thrown out. This is a beautiful country and everyone is judged by what they have done and not lumped into one place.”