Dan Rattiner's Stories

30 Feet: Limits to the Grandness of Your Patriotism in Sag Harbor

Ever wonder why there’s this long list of things not to do on a big sign at the beach? The reason is that people do stupid things. They kick sand. Their dogs eat beachgoers’ lunches. The beachgoers don’t throw trash in the litter containers. So the towns and villages, after noting there is no law against some specific stupid thing, hurry up and write one to prevent it.

A woman wrote a book about this. She was in the park with her three-year-old daughter, and her daughter ran across some grass, stopped in front of some flowers and ate one. Then somebody complained. The authorities noted there was a sign there reading “Keep Off the Grass” this child had violated. Two weeks later, there was a second sign. It read, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” And that became the name of this book.

Using this as a starting point, bureaucrats everywhere have gone on a binge to create laws for every little thing, even sometimes if nobody ever did the thing in the first place, and even if there is no good reason for having such a law. Doing that is what makes them bureaucrats.

For example, there’s a law in Sag Harbor that says the front door of a bar cannot be within 50 feet of the front door of a church. There’s a law in Southampton that says nobody can wear shorts downtown that don’t cover halfway above between the hip and the knee.

Recently, the Village of Sag Harbor issued a summons to a new convenience store and gas station on Route 114 for having put up a flagpole with an American flag on top too high. The flagpole rises 60 feet. This is way beyond bad, the rules say. The patriotic enthusiasm for flying the American flag atop a pole is limited to 15 feet in a residential zone and 30 feet in a business district. One mutes one’s patriotism in Sag Harbor. Imagine that!

I’ve been coming out to the East End for years, and for a long time, coming out on the Sunrise Highway heading eastbound from Oakdale, there is, or there used to be, the biggest American flag I have ever seen outside a sports stadium—perhaps 50 x 100 feet in size—held up by a pole that rose up to perhaps 120 feet. It became a landmark for those of us coming out. Get to that great patriotic display and you were halfway to the Hamptons.

It was there for years. It waved high above a Buick-Pontiac dealership. I thought vets must be the proud owners of that dealership. But one day it was gone. It was a Toyota dealership now. Was it a no-no, flying an American flag over that? Or perhaps somebody forgot to take it down just before a hurricane hit. The flag, if it came loose, would completely cover North Sayville. Perhaps it did.

In any case, I wondered if any other town or village down here restricted the height of patriotism. I tried Southampton Village. Nope. I tried East Hampton Village. Nope.

The perp of this indiscretion in Sag Harbor was discussed by residents and the powers that be in Sag Harbor at a public meeting a week ago Tuesday. In a residential zone, it’s allowed to be only 15 feet. In a business zone, only 30 feet. One person said that the American flag in front of the Washington Monument was only 25 feet high. What’s good enough for him should be good enough for us. Another person said this was just a blatant attempt for the new convenience store to call attention to itself. Also, my goodness, the fluttering of the flag way up there might be enough to drive some in the neighborhood nuts, it seems.

Sukru Ilgin said he believed he’d gotten the okay to put the pole up, but was ordered by the zoning   board to take the flagpole down. The zoning here is residential. But the old Harbor Heights gas station was a pre-existing exception on this road as a business, so it was grandfathered in. On the other hand, there had been no American flag of that height at the gas station, so that wasn’t grandfathered. Anyway, it wasn’t clear to me if the flagpole was in violation of the residential law so it was four times as high as it was allowed, or if it was just two times too high because it was in a grandfathered in a prehistoric business zone.

One village board member did wax philosophically about these heights—15 feet or 30 feet. Who knew, he said, why this wasn’t 12 feet or 18 feet. It was just whatever it was in the year the board was composed of the people who were on it at the time.

Hmmm.

I know the reason that the Washington flagpole only goes up 25 feet. Back in 1776, they only had ladders that went up 25 feet.

In any case, here is what the law reads. It tells you what is allowed and what the restrictions allowed are. It’s in section 300 – 9.2 B.

“…a flagpole utilized for the display of the flag of the United States provided that it is set back a minimum of 15 feet from the street line and a minimum of 10 feet from all side lot lines. The maximum height of the flagpole shall not exceed 15 feet above existing grade, except that the maximum height shall be 30 feet in the RM and WF [business] districts.”

I should point out that this is the village that has, for five years, without success, been trying to get a 16-foot tall sculpture by Larry Rivers on the front lawn of a private home on Madison Street removed. The sculpture consists of two shiny white human female legs. After all these years of rulings against it, it remains.

The reason is that overriding all is the fact that it is illegal for a building inspector to tromp onto someone’s property and physically remove something without a court order. And so far, this matter has never gotten to the point where somebody can do that.

Anyway, I think there is a work-around for this 60-foot flagpole that could result in it not being taken down.

The law clearly states that no flagpole flying an American flag can be set up in a residential zone at a height exceeding 15 feet. So just don’t fly an American flag. Instead, fly the flag of North Korea or Russia or Mexico or Iran.

Until the Please Don’t Eat the Daisy people get around to amending that law, it’s okay.

* * *

For nearly a century, the tallest building on all of Long Island was in Sag Harbor. It was the Whalers Church. Its steeple rose to a remarkable 185 feet. It dominated the town and could be seen for miles.

The steeple got knocked down by the Hurricane of 1938. It was never rebuilt. Currently, one can easily see the platform at the top of the church where the steeple once sat.

The year 1938 was before zoning. The rule with the grandfathering law is that if something was above any height that today would be considered illegal, it would be allowed, so long as it was still up when the new law went into effect. The new zoning laws in Sag Harbor went into effect around 1955. The steeple had been down for nearly 17 years by then.

So I guess that great steeple will never get the approval to be put back up. Too bad, Sag Harbor.

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