TAMPA — As dozens of supporters in Save the Airstream Ranch T-shirts poured into the courthouse, Frank Bates waved photos of his odd roadside installation, off Interstate 4 in Dover.
The 7 1/2 Airstream trailers planted nose down are the background in professional fashion photos and the subject of October in a regional calendar. Rand McNally recently e-mailed Bates, asking for details for its map of roadside attractions.
If all these people are interested, he asked, isn't it art?
County officials told him a year ago to remove the silver trailers, but he's fighting back. On Friday, he got his chance to appeal the code enforcement board's decision in a hearing in front of three Hillsborough County circuit court judges.
First Amendment attorney Luke Lirot argued that the code enforcement board doesn't have enough proof for its claims that the trailers are junk, a nuisance, advertisement and open storage.
But Circuit Judge James Barton asked, "So you're saying it's not to advertise? So it's a coincidence that the appellants sell Airstream trailers and these are Airstream trailers?"
Airstream Ranch is not about the product, Lirot said. It's about the message, the idea of travel and the open road.
It's art, he said, and therefore can receive First Amendment protection.
But senior associate county attorney Louise Fields said that if Bates wants to call it art, he needs to go through the zoning administrator, who will decide if it can be approved as a "nonconforming structure."
Then, the county would probably just require some kind of adjustment, she said, like adding a fence around the trailers.
But Lirot said that's frightening. He doesn't want a county administrator deciding what's art.
Four residents who live near the display attended the hearing, hoping the judges will deny Bates' appeal. The judges' decision may take several weeks.
The neighbors say it's definitely not art. Instead, it's a nuisance that increased traffic on their narrow roads, attracted a graffiti artist and made them feel less comfortable about letting their children play in their front yards.
"We used to know everybody who went up and down our road," said Sandra Wolcott, who's lived on Castlewood Road for 20 years. "Now we don't."
But Bates is also hopeful. And if the judges say no, he expects to take his case further.
"All the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if we can," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.