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Now legit as art, Airstream Ranch will honk its horn

DOVER — The seven-and-a-half silver Airstreams seem quieter now, smug. Freed from two years of litigious squabbling, the gigantic upended RVs are open for fanfare.

And here it comes.

Plans for spotlights, walkways, gazebos and a full-length documentary film are in the works at the Airstream Ranch along Interstate 4.

A three-judge panel ruled the conspicuous attraction legal in February after the Hillsborough County Code Enforcement board deemed the site a nuisance. County commissioners decided in March not to fight the decision.

"I'm excited," said Frank Bates, who installed the Airstream Ranch near his business, Bates RV, in 2007. "There are not very many things you can build in your life that might be there forever — things that make people smile and make people happy."

Bates remains adamant in calling the Airstream Ranch a piece of art. Built to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his business, Bates said he hopes the work inspires thoughts of travel and freedom.

His first order of business? Lighting up the attraction at night, pending permit approval.

As a class project, about a half-dozen Tampa Bay Technical High School architecture students planned further improvements, including a walkway made of recycled tires, pagodas for picnic lunches, a projector to cast images onto the trailers and possibly a playground.

"It deserves being beautiful now," said teacher Bryant Martinez, who assigned the project before the county challenged the ranch. "I'm appreciative Frank stuck it out."

Martinez and his students went to the hearings to defend Bates's vision. Surprised by neighbors' objections to the display, he said their arguments offered the students a useful lesson.

"In architecture, not everyone sees something in the same way," Martinez said.

Brian Connell, who lives directly behind the ranch, was one of the more vocal of the peeved neighbors.

"How would people like it if it were in their back yard?" Connell asked recently, looking toward the gleaming recreational vehicles from his driveway. "What can I do?"

Connell said he's most bothered by the sight of the RVs, but the increased traffic along the quiet Castlewood Road is a major annoyance, too.

Tourists often park in Connell's front yard to pose for pictures. He said they've knocked his fence down three times.

But visits from tourists may not stop anytime soon with a new documentary about the ranch preparing to debut.

The film follows the ranch's planning, building and county battle and will soon be pitched to major networks, said executive producer Ashley Gracile, from GPI Content Corp. in Los Angeles.

(Bates isn't expecting any profit from the film, just publicity.)

Gracile, who has a nationally syndicated RV show, became fast friends with Bates in the early 1990s at a convention. Making a film about Bates's roadside display was a no-brainer, he said.

Filming halted, though, when the ranch was tied up in legal proceedings. Gracile said producers wanted the story to have a happy ending before airing it.

"It was that David and Goliath thing," Gracile said. "In a certain way, Frank Bates is a throwback to a time when individuals had the guts and courage and foresight to stick to their values."

Bates's lawyer, Luke Lirot, gave one of the last interviews for the documentary.

"It's certainly creative," Lirot said. "And it's got a clear message — the ideals of freedom and the open road."

He said the ranch victory is one of his proudest. Not only because he says he believes in Bates's artistic message, but because the case clarified legal issues about land development codes.

He said other lawyers frequently call asking how he won and what he learned.

Last month, county officials lifted a lien on the ranch — imposed after Bates RV incurred $100-a-day fines during the code violation battle. With that last step, Lirot said, it seems the attraction is here to stay.

Jim Blinck, operations manager for county code enforcement, disagrees.

"We haven't forgotten about the Airstream trailers," Blinck said.

Blinck said he plans to call a meeting with representatives from the county's code enforcement, billing, zoning and attorney's offices to determine how to further fight the ranch. "It's never going to be over," Blinck said.

Bates said he's not worried.

He's fielded calls from mapmakers, such as Rand McNally, and creators of online road trip guides who are ready to include the Airstream Ranch in attraction resources.

"They didn't want to put it in their maps until it was permanent," Bates said.

He looked up at his creation and smiled. "It's really becoming a landmark."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com

. Fast Facts

The Airstream Ranch's struggle

January 2007: Frank Bates builds Airstream Ranch.

March 2008: Hillsborough County Code Enforcement rules that the trailers violate zoning and sign restrictions and rules against debris and improper storage.

April 2008: Bates' 30-day window to remove the ranch comes and goes, and he's slapped with fines of up to $100 a day.

March 2009: Bates and his lawyer appeal code enforcement's decision before three Circuit Court judges.

February : The three-judge panel deems Bates' installation legal and reverses the $100-per-day fines.

March : County commissioners decided not to appeal the judges' ruling.

Now legit as art, Airstream Ranch will honk its horn 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 11:24pm]
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