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Airstream Ranch may lose its only crop

Frank Bates of Bates RV stands in front of Airstream Ranch, his version of the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, in January. He planted 7 1/2 Airstream trailers in a field near Exit 14 of Interstate 4 in Dover. The trailers are 1957 to 1994 vintage and range from 16 to 34 feet.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Frank Bates of Bates RV stands in front of Airstream Ranch, his version of the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, in January. He planted 7 1/2 Airstream trailers in a field near Exit 14 of Interstate 4 in Dover. The trailers are 1957 to 1994 vintage and range from 16 to 34 feet.

So you're driving east out of Tampa on the gritty highway that is Interstate 4 and flying by some seriously mind-numbing ugliness — car dealerships, construction-sites-turned-war zones, patchy green fields bordered by billboards that practically demand you stop for a big greasy breakfast or come clean about your gambling habit (1-888-ADMIT IT.)

Then, for a moment, there it is on your right, just before Exit 14 — maybe the most interesting sight of your day's travels. (That includes even those weird metal creatures just up the road at Dinosaur World.)

On a nearly 6-acre piece of property are eight 1957 to 1994 vintage Airstream trailers — the much-loved silver symbol of America taking to the open road. Each is planted end-down in the ground in a rakish row, their nubby other ends pointed at varying heights to the sky.

Airstream Ranch, it's called.

Now it's hard not to laugh, or at least look twice, at this kitsch, this oddity, this art. You think of retirees or families of decades past setting out from their Midwestern homes determined to see the world (or at least the country) in their shiny new Airstreams.

And, hey, don't take my word about this being art. Experts said so.

Even if it is art that looks to be doomed.

Frank Bates, owner of the Bates RV business just east of Airstream Ranch, says he was inspired by the half-buried cars of Cadillac Ranch back in his native Texas. His version pays homage to cool old trailers, which he installed just in January. And already, there's trouble at the ranch.

Some neighbors don't like it. There are worries about the traffic it could bring.

At a hearing last month, the Hillsborough County Code Enforcement Board found Airstream Ranch in violation, its biggest problem being that the property is zoned agricultural.

The board skirted the issue of whether the ranch is indeed "art" —probably a good thing, since experts from the Ringling College of Art and Design and the University of South Florida art school were on hand to opine on its behalf. Not to mention a goodly number of folk in "Save Airstream Ranch" T-shirts.

Ah, art. As one board member pointed out, "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

Naysayers have called Airstream Ranch a sign advertising for Bates RV — although nothing there actually says "Bates RV." And it's difficult to imagine someone driving by, seeing the spectacle and thinking, "Hey, I'm going to stop right now and buy me an RV!"

But rules are rules, and rules are rules, and you can't blame code enforcement officials for doing their job.

But is there really no way to save the ranch?

Bates could apply for a rezoning, though that would almost definitely mean a sizable increase in his property taxes on something he says doesn't even make him money. He has also said he wants to work with neighbors, put up landscaping, a wall even, to mitigate. But what would be the point?

And so, by the time the 30-day grace period is up and the daily fines kick in this month, Airstream Ranch may be no more. Maybe it will go the way of other things uniquely Florida, making an empty space for another big billboard, another cheap drive-through.

Then again, maybe that's vintage Florida, too.

Airstream Ranch may lose its only crop 04/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 3:20pm]
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