Emotions ran high at a public hearing Tuesday before the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals, which is trying to decide whether a 16-foot-tall sculpture by Larry Rivers known as “Legs” should be permitted to remain on a private lawn in the village historic district.
The board, residents and members of the art community debated whether “Legs” should be considered art or an accessory structure that must conform with zoning. According to the ZBA, applicants Ruth Vered and Janet Lehr seek to legalize an accessory structure that is a foot taller than what is permitted, and sited just 1 foot from the lot line, where a 35-foot setback is required. But Vered and Lehr say the fiberglass sculpture of a woman’s long, slender legs in stockings is an artwork, created by the late, renowned Southampton artist Larry Rivers, whose million dollar works are in major museums. The owners of the Vered Gallery bought the sculpture about three years ago from a collector and installed on the side of their home, a former Baptist church dating back to 1844.
But since then, the two women have received notices from the Sag Harbor Building Department that they had not applied for a permit and may be in violation of the zoning code. When they got a notice that “Legs” should come down, their attorney applied for a hearing.
Tuesday night, their attorney, Richard Hammer, of Biondo and Hammer, said he viewed this issue as “intellectually vibrant.”
“It’s a larger issue — as big as the attendance in this room tonight,” he said. “Over 430 people have signed a petition in favor of saving the ‘Legs,’ and we have 52 letters.” He asked the board to reconsider the building inspector’s definition of accessory structure, which he said “applies to barbecues, benches, flags, tree houses, bird houses, but I ask that you consider this as a piece of art.”
“A sculpture can be regulated under the zoning code, but all cases are different,” Hammer added. “We’re treading into unusual territory.”
Hammer said it’s within the board’s jurisdiction to allow "Legs" with a building permit, if the safety issues are addressed.
“I think art has a place in our community — it is not a use of property, not a structure, but an expression. And there is no detrimental element — no noise, light — it just exists. The village of Sag Harbor is diverse and vibrant and the purpose of zoning is not to stifle expression.”
But ZBA member Brendan Skislock disagreed, insisting that “Legs” is a structure. “Art is an emotion, and this has no place on the zoning board,” he said. He said if he gives a variance to this, what if 150 more homes in Sag Harbor asked for the same thing?
But Hammer said if 150 more homes “wanted to express themselves, he’d consider it a real victory for the community.”
ZBA Attorney Fred Thiele urged the board to focus on the variance, rather than deciding if it is art or not. “I think what the zoning board needs is to address the benefit of the applicant — does it outweigh any detriment to the community?” he said.
ZBA member Anthony Hagen said he doesn’t share Hammer’s vision of Sag Harbor. “I think this village is a repository of historic structures, and it’s hard for us to approve a structure that demands a variance of such a degree,” he said. “It will set a precedent.”
He said he also thinks “Legs” is too commercial in nature, and acts as a “billboard” to advertise the East Hampton art gallery owned by Vered and Lehr.
ZBA member Benedetta Deubel said she also doesn’t want to set a precedent, and she worries “what will go on from this point.”
At the meeting, about a dozen people spoke for and against “Legs,” including David Joel, the executive director of the Larry Rivers Foundation of Bridgehampton. “By calling this a structure you’re saying it’s not art,” he said. “But this sculpture is documented in the books as art.”
The question arose as to whether the “Legs” should even come before the ZBA at all, since the board only regulates structures.
“No one is saying you can’t put a sculpture in Sag Harbor,” Thiele said. “It depends on where you put it.”
One neighbor, Jennifer Houser, who owns two houses facing the “Legs,” said although she loves art, “This is about living in a historic district; not about the art, but the precedent it sets. I feel this is an advertisement and a merchandising model, and it’s also illuminated all night.”
Hammer later said the sculpture is lighted from outside, which could be changed.
But another nearby resident, Duncan Haile, said, “The precedent you might not want to set is to censor art in Sag Harbor. You might want to dismiss this as not applicable to the zoning code.”
Following the meeting, Vered said she was happy with the support she received from the community.
The board members gave a 10-day period for written comment, and said they hoped to make a decision by their next meeting in March.