Renewed Interest in ‘Legs’ Case in Sag Harbor
By Christine Sampson
If ever a commonality existed between a 60-foot-tall flagpole flying the U.S. stars-and-stripes at a local gas station and a 16-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture of shapely female legs attached to the side of a house, it can be found in Sag Harbor.
Indeed, both have been deemed structures that were erected illegally, and the May 16 Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals denial of a variance for that 60-foot-tall flagpole at the Gulf gas station on Hampton Street appears to have reawakened interest in “Legs,” which have quietly stood still astride the former Bethel Baptist Church despite a lengthy legal battle over their future.
“Legs,” created by the late artist Larry Rivers and currently still situated at the northeast side of a house at the corner of Henry and Madison Streets, pitted its owners, Ruth Vered and Janet Lehr, against Sag Harbor Village officials despite a fair amount of community support and even editorials in its favor by this newspaper. In November 2015, a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled that it was, in fact, a structure, not a work of art protected by the First Amendment.
But along the way, a new mayor was elected, the village’s various appointed boards saw leadership changes, the village’s elected trustees cranked out a few new laws and fought a handful of lawsuits pertaining to one of them — its gross floor area law, which limits the size of houses in Sag Harbor based on lot size. Village officials also had to cope with a devastating fire on Main Street, among other developments. One could argue that Sag Harbor had other priorities.
Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder said Tuesday that wasn’t the case. Instead of a delay in enforcement efforts by the village, she said, it was more of a waiting game to see whether Ms. Vered and Ms. Lehr would indeed take the court ruling to the appellate level.
“If you don’t appeal it timely, you don’t get to. They didn’t, so it’s over,” Ms. Schroeder said Tuesday. “When something gets to court, it’s more or less out of our hands. The lawyers and the judges deal with it. Even if Brian [Gilbride] was still the mayor, it wouldn’t be in his hands.”
Ms. Schroeder pointed out one key difference between the flagpole and “Legs.”
“Our judge said the ‘Legs’ have to come down,” she said. “A judge didn’t say the flagpole has to come down. It didn’t get that bad yet. That’s why I don’t see a connection.”
Though a suggestion was made following last week’s ZBA meeting that an appeal of the 2015 state Supreme Court decision had indeed been filed, Stephen Grossman, the attorney who represented Ms. Lehr and Ms. Vered in court, confirmed Friday that no such appeal is in progress.
ZBA attorney Denise Schoen said Monday that the flagpole — which, by law, can stand no taller than 15 feet in the type of zone where the gas station is built, and which had been erected without building department approval in the first place — has “definitely restored interest” in “Legs” among some within the village government. She said the next step in both cases is to find a way to force the structures’ owners to take them down.
One option, Ms. Schoen said, would be for the village to work with its litigation attorneys to file an action in State Supreme Court seeking a judgment that mandates “Legs” has to be taken down. The other option, she said, would be issuing appearance tickets to have the “Legs” owners appear in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court. The same solutions could also apply to the Gulf gas station’s nonconforming flagpole.
“The problem with Justice Court is it does not have the power to order someone to do something, like ‘you have to stop your business’ or ‘take down your structure,’” Ms. Schoen said. “They can say you’re wrong and we’re correct. … To win that case would mean getting fines, but maybe not resulting in the ultimate outcome that you want, which would mean taking it down.”
The village appears poised to choose the latter. Sag Harbor building inspector Tom Preiato said by email Monday he intends to issue an appearance ticket for “Legs” in the near future.
“As a structure, it was determined in court previously that is subject to zoning regulations,” he said. “…No pun intended, but I’m not taking a stance on the ‘Legs’ other than that from a code perspective. If an accessory structure can be considered art, so be it.”
Where it remains to this day, “Legs” is located one foot from the property line; village code requires a 35-foot setback for accessory structures. They are 16.1 feet tall, whereas village code sets the maximum accessory structure height at 15 feet. “Legs” also violates the pyramid rule, protruding into the sky plane by 16.7 feet.
Mr. Rivers’s “Legs” is an art installation created in 1969 as part of a larger display called “Forty Feet of Fashion” that also included disembodied lips and oversized consumer products for the opening of the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove. After that installation concluded, the artist — credited as one of the originators of pop art — set up “Legs” at his Southampton studio, where guests had to walk through them to enter. Sag Harbor’s “Legs” are not the artist’s first creation; these particular limbs are the second iteration, cast in 1994 and sold first to a collector before being purchased by Ms. Vered and Ms. Lehr.
The owners could not be reached for comment this week.
Ironically, when attorney Richard A. Hammer argued for “Legs” before the ZBA in February 2012, he noted that “similar methods of expression,” such as flagpoles, were not regulated by the village zoning code. A local law passed in September 2014 changed that, restricting the height of flagpoles to 30 feet in commercially zoned areas and to 15 feet in residentially zoned areas.