Judge Sides with Sag Harbor ZBA in “Legs” Case

Larry Rivers' "Legs" sculpture at the Madison Street property of Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered. Gavin Menu photos.
Larry Rivers’ “Legs” sculpture at the Madison Street property of Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered. Gavin Menu photos.

By Kathryn G. Menu

Sag Harbor Village will demand the removal of the Larry Rivers “Legs” sculpture from the Madison Street home of Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered after a judge sided with a 2012 ruling by its zoning board of appeals earlier this month.

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In a November 4 decision, State Supreme Court Justice James Hudson upheld the ZBA’s decision that the sculpture was a structure and should be treated as such under the village code, rather than viewing it as a piece of art.

“It is not within the ZBA’s jurisdiction (nor did it attempt) to judge what is art,” the judge wrote. “That is a question philosophers from Plato to Arthur Danto have debated and is best left to their province. The ZBA correctly limited itself to dealing with the structure as it is affected by the Village and State Zoning Laws.”

Justice Hudson said as a structure the “Legs” would be allowed in Sag Harbor Village, but that the issue before the ZBA was its location—directly next to the sidewalk on Henry Street. Under village code, accessory structures must meet basic setbacks from the property line.

“As such, the Village Zoning Code in question is content neutral in that it treats all structures equally,” said Justice Hudson, denying that the ZBA violated Ms. Vered and Ms. Lehr’s right to free speech.

The “Legs” case, which garnered international media attention, began in 2008, when Ms. Lehr and Ms. Vered installed the 16-foot fiberglass, mixed media art piece on the side of their home, the former Bethel Baptist Church. In 2010, an application for a building permit was denied by then building inspector Timothy Platt. Ms. Lehr and Ms. Vered then asked the ZBA to allow them to keep the sculpture in place. Their application was denied in 2011 without prejudice, and they returned to the ZBA in 2012 requesting three variances to keep the sculpture. They also argued the “Legs” should not fall under the auspices of zoning because it was a piece of art and the village had no authority to regulate their freedom of expression.

Mr. Lehr and Ms. Vered were backed by The Larry Rivers Foundation, which came out in support of their case, and handed the ZBA a petition with 400 signatures from residents of the South Fork asking the board to view “Legs” as art, rather than as a structure.

Neighbors, however, were not as supportive, with many calling for the removal of “Legs,” and questioning whether they belonged in a residential neighborhood in the village’s historic district.

“From the law, this was a simple case from the beginning,” said village attorney Fred W. Thiele Jr. on Tuesday. “The ‘Legs’ are an accessory structure, and they are permitted to have them in a conforming location. That is what the court upheld. To those who wanted to make this about art—woe be the day a local government or any government decides what is art and what is not art. That was not the question for us.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Lehr said she was meeting with her attorney, Stephen Grossman, on Sunday to discuss the path forward and had yet to make a decision about whether or not to appeal the ruling.

“We were actually floored by the decision,” she said. “I think it is appalling to have so little regard for art.”

Mr. Thiele said the village would seek the sculpture’s removal, appeal or no appeal. The original ZBA decision called on the structure’s removal within 30 days, although the village chose not to enforce that action, said Mr. Thiele, while the court was considering Ms. Lehr and Ms. Vered’s case. While the village must wait for a written judgment from the court before it can set a timetable for the removal of the “Leg,” Mr. Thiele said it would request the decision give Ms. Lehr and Ms. Vered 30 days to take the sculpture down.

“They have been up for three years,” he said. “I think the village wants them to come down, and I think we have been more than gracious in letting those ‘Legs’ stay up while court was pending.”

Mr. Thiele said it could be anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months—depending on the court—before the “Legs” are required to come down.

“If there is an appeal we will seek enforcement of their removal,” he said. “I don’t see any harm to the landowner if they are taken down. If they were to prevail on appeal, they could always put them back up.”