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'Airstream Ranch' along I-4 does not violate law, judges rule

A display of upended and partially buried Airstream campers can stay near Dover on Interstate 4, a panel of judges has ruled.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times (2008)

A display of upended and partially buried Airstream campers can stay near Dover on Interstate 4, a panel of judges has ruled.

TAMPA — Love it or hate it, the Winnebago-sized installation known as the "Airstream Ranch" is legal, a three-judge panel has ruled.

This week's decision reverses a $100-per-day fine on Frank and Dorothy Bates, who put up the shiny row of silver RVs in 2007.

"I thought we were right all the time," said Frank Bates, 54. "It's just kind of nice that once in a while you can actually win."

Hillsborough County officials can appeal, but Bates plans to keep the trailers buried nose-first in view of drivers whizzing through Dover on Interstate 4.

And that's not all.

"Now we're going to light it at night," he said.

Since Airstream Ranch was installed, more than 10,000 visitors have signed petitions at Bates' nearby RV dealership in support, he said. It is popular enough that he sells Airstream Ranch shirts and postcards.

The attraction has drawn tourists from as far away as Japan, was the backdrop for a fashion shoot and has been featured in a country music video. Two people asked about marrying there.

But some neighbors hate it and have complained to the county, which has 30 days to appeal the decision to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

Late Friday afternoon, Assistant County Attorney Nancy Takemori said no decision had been made whether to recommend an appeal, something code enforcement officials hope to do.

"We're certainly disappointed, but we'll abide by the judges' ruling if that's what it comes down to," said John Ferdon, a senior business analyst for code enforcement. "It seemed kind of open and shut to us."

The judges did not consider the artistic merits. Nor did they decide whether it is constitutionally protected free speech.

That's okay, said Bates' attorney, Luke Lirot of Clearwater.

"They didn't declare it to be art, but they certainly declared it not to be junk," he said. "From my perspective, anything that protects what somebody thinks is an artistic expression is a good result no matter how we get there."

Three judges from the civil appellate division of the Hillsborough circuit court said county officials had not produced substantial, competent evidence establishing that the display created a nuisance, was a commercial sign or constituted an open storage of the vehicles.

The judges reversed a March 2008 decision of the Code Enforcement Board fining the Bateses $100 per day while the violations continued. The fines had piled up to $7,800, but were stayed once Bates appealed.

Bates said he upended the trailers — 7 1/2 in all — in honor of Airstream's 75th anniversary

Times Staff Writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.

'Airstream Ranch' along I-4 does not violate law, judges rule 02/12/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 12:04am]
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