Air Stream Ranch: Freedom of Expression is Not Free


Alongside the eastbound lanes of Interstate 4 in Dover, Florida, an individual by the name of Frank Bates buried eight Airstream travel trailers nose-down. It is not far from Tampa, and I often pass it on the way to Orlando and beyond. I finally decided to pull over and take a picture of this creation because it might not be there for much longer. Hillsborough County code inspectors and several of Gates’ neighbors want it gone.

When it comes to ART, our tastes, perspectives, and emotions vary; or, as some of us like to say, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” There are certain elements of design, whether contrived by humans or nature, that we can all generally agree on as beautiful. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I am sure you have been in an individual’s home and wondered if the aesthetic gene went missing in them. Of course, as long as their taste, or misplaced taste, is confined to their personal space then no harm no foul. But when it enters public domain then we have some issues.

Even though I side with Hillsbourough County in this case, I truly appreciate the vision and motivation that manifested in Gates to the point where he took a nondescript and unused area of his personal property and created public amusement. There are so many people that fall prey to laziness or ineptness that they never pursue freedom of expression. Even though “freedom of expression” is a contradiction.

The problem is – there is no true freedom of expression in public domain unless permission to express is first obtained. Otherwise, you suffer the consequences, however small or large they may be. Gates may have gotten his way if he had pursued appropriate actions and received approval. He thought since it was on his land that he could do whatever he so chose. But just like when you don’t pay your property taxes, you quickly find out how far the boundaries, or limitations, of personal property extend.

Gates was bold and creative. He demonstrated good form but bad execution; or is it the opposite? I side with the law because people would otherwise express themselves in distasteful ways far beyond what looks like art. No matter the intentions, I think so many of us enjoy people like Gates who give the system a little test every now and again. By sheer presentation, those Airstreams seem to be giving the law a little bit of the old fuck you. Obviously, they got the message.

8 thoughts on “Air Stream Ranch: Freedom of Expression is Not Free”

  1. I’ve always liked the tact of “move forward and beg for forgiveness”. He actually has bargaining power that he would not have otherwise.

    Go get’m Gates….subvert the dominant paradigm.

    I’d gladly switch the POS camper rotting next to my office for a shiny vertically oriented airstream 🙂

  2. Arod, I do tend to agree with you and the wish-washy flavor of this post probably demonstrates my inability to take a hard line. You look and see all of the horrible projects that get approved because they pursued the proper channels, and you wonder if everything is just a series of polite negotiations. But then again, what if say, real estate developers took the same course of action – “move forward(???) and beg for forgiveness later”?

  3. Well there is a reason strip malls are ubiquitous and look alike no matter what state you are in. They’re Uniform Building Code compliant and easily permitted. More unique structures require custom design and custom permitting.

    I agree there needs to be a check and balance .ie. permitting and codes. When the permitting and codes take too much of the budget and make unfeasible the unique and custom creations we love……Has it gone to far?

  4. This picture just makes me smile. I find it to be a wonderful piece of art and expression and most of all a feeling that supports my belief that art is the expression of one’s own imagination. The airstream in and of itself is a wonderful example of industrial design. It is iconic and smart. Rounded edges vs. corners is of course better with wind speed and this represents the “silver bullet” nickname. I do believe in codes and such for certain things but so much of what should be “freedom of expression” is now restricted. What does it then mean to live in a “free” country?? I actually seek out unique expressions like this as a way to keep my own creativity and imagination strong. It is inspiring and memorable and if only available for a short time of viewing, he had me at hello.

    Think about the plethora of sub-division row houses that feel so uninspiring and blah. Think about how a Ford use to look like a Ford and a Chrysler use to look like a Chrysler. VW — well, we all know about the beetle and it’s iconic success. Now that cars have morphed into a common breed, I salute this person who broke free and turned a one time mobile home (of sort) on it’s side. I say shake it up. What I wouldn’t give to have come across this site by happenstance.

    I’m heading to the Tampa/Orlando area in the next month (from California) and hope to find this gem. Thanks for sharing it and for the dialog. I think we need to stop being fearful of expression — rather — we need to be fearful of the sea of sameness.

    I rather like the way the Airstreams have sprouted roots with the community. At this point, I’d argue they have a right to stay just about as much as what I consider to be an ugly set of sub-division houses — the difference here being that these are actually and example of “good design”.

  5. Arod and Mich, great comments from both of you!

    I wonder if it changes anything if I tell you Bates also owns a dealership down the road that sells RVs?

    I also ask you to keep in mind that if someone decides to build their own unapproved installation next door to you, and you don’t perceive it to be art, what rights will you have to ask them to remove it? You’ll be glad you have some.

    I’m not sure that subdivisions are a good comparison simply because they serve a different function. Additionally, developers are required to go through some period of review, however corrupt, quick, or shady the may be. But to continue with that theme…

    I had the pleasure of growing up in a historical city where homeowners are required to obtain permission to make any notable changes to the exterior of their homes. Think if this was not in place? People would have likely destroyed or horribly altered many of the original structures by applying their own sense of taste. And there is a lot of bad taste out there.

    My main point is not that I don’t think the Airstreams are art – I do – but you can’t deny that Bates proceeded with a project that most likely should have gone through County review but didn’t.

  6. 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.

  7. Glad to hear things worked out for you! I always enjoy seeing your creation, and it is nice to know that it will stay.

    With that being said, I still appreciate the fact that those who were opposed to it had the right to protest it. If you had installed a giant pile of trash on your property, and called it art while it diminished the landscape around you, it would have been a different story. It stinks that we are such a litigous society, but the alternative would unfortunately trend to the lowest common denominator.

    Congrats again on your win, and thanks for the comment!

  8. The comments left by Robert are probably the most fair and unbiased that I have read so far about this Airstream Ranch and do agree with the statement made on May1st 2009 that “Bates proceeded with a project that most likely should have gone through County review but didn’t.”

    Adding to the point, the project was built on property zoned for single family dwelling only. Yes, the Hillsborough County Code Enforcement ruled unanimously 6-0 the project was in violation and yes a 3 judge panel overturned the Code Board. I don’t agree with the ruling in this case as I don’t agree with the ruling in awarding milliions of dollars to a person suing McDonalds over hot coffee.

    Previous to erecting the buried Airstreams, Bates has been in violation several times over trying to use the property zoned for single family dwelling and located within an established neighborhood for improper use. The violations are public record yet no one that I am aware published this information.

    I understand that Bates leases or has some type of agreement with the two (2) neighbors that own property directly to the East. Their property lies between the property in which the Airstream Ranch sits(zoned single family residence) and Bates dealership. According to public records of Hillsborough County, these (2) neighbors are now in violation because they are allowing Bates to use their property to sell the recreational vehicles. Again, you won’t find anyone that will publish this information.

    Bates also brags in his comments above that he is planning on lighting up the project. As of today, he has been turned down. This is public record and no one will publish this information.

    This so called Airstream Ranch is not about “art”. It is about advertisement for his dealership next door. He has tried to use this particular property for advertisement several times and has been in violation so many times for doing so that he devised a scheme to play on words and call it “art”. (This is my opinion of course) People should have rights but their rights should not infringe on others. There would not have been an issue if he would have put his display on his dealership property which is commercially zoned and persued governmental documents needed ahead of time.

    I think the majority of the public would agree that if you live in an established neighborhood/subdivision and then a dairy farm moved in next to you, there would be reason for opposition to the dairy farm. On the otherhand, if the dairy farm was established first and you or the neighborhood/subdivision came in on it, then your reasoning for opposition to the dairy farm is foulable. This is the situation going on for most part with the opposition with Bates’ Airstream Ranch. He has moved in on others that were already established.

    Please don’t take my word for all the violations and schemes he has persued but instead find it in public records for yourselves. Your findings may just give you a different perspective.

    Talking about perspective: I wonder how the majority of the public will feel to find out that as of a few days ago he is using an Autism foundation to possibly advertise by using huge letters on the buried Airstreams and including his name on one of the middle Airstreams? I wonder how the majority of the public will feel to find out that many huge trees were removed evidently without a permit in order for him to make this display? Natural Resources of Hillsborough County has no record of permits for the removal of the trees. The trees that were removed can be viewed from an aerial map proving the amount of trees removed. I wonder why none of this has been reported? hmm

    One last thing. I think the picture/art work of the Airstreams are great. I just wish there was a counter picture that depicts the actual view, dilapidated fencing, overgrown weeds/grass and snakes.

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