DOVER — From the man who brought us Airstream Ranch — seven-and-a-half upended silver Airstream trailers planted in the ground next to Interstate 4, and more about that in a moment — now comes the first line of "eco-friendly" travel trailers. They're called EverGreen, and they are virtually formaldehyde-free, and have no wood to rot or mold, Frank Bates says, owner of Bates RV in Dover, between Lakeland and Tampa on Interstate 4.
Formaldehyde content is evidently a problem with some trailers, especially as they bake in the hot Florida sun. EverGreen trailers are made mostly from composite materials, and are as much as 1,200 pounds lighter than comparable trailers, meaning they tow easier, using less fuel.
There are also recycled materials used in the construction, such as a mattress made from recycled plastic water bottles, Bates says. "But lying on it," he says, "you'd never know it!" And if you buy one, the company plants a tree in your name. Yes, Bates says, they are more expensive — maybe by 10 percent — and the one I toured cost $32,000. I didn't check for formaldehyde, but it didn't smell like my ninth-grade biology class, either.
It's likely that "green" trailers, nice as they are, weren't enough reason for us to drive to Dover, but I also wanted to check in with Bates about Airstream Ranch, which he built in January 2008. Bates likes Airstreams, those moderately kitschy silver aluminum trailers owned by everybody from Matthew McConaughey to Sean Penn to Brian Johnson, lead singer of AC/DC, who lives just down the road. Even Sandra Bullock has one: Maybe that's where Jesse James is living now.
Anyway, Airstream had recently celebrated its 75th birthday, so Bates conceived Airstream Ranch, where he buried seven-and-a-half 1957-1994 vintage Airstream trailers in a vacant lot next door to the dealership. He buried seven-and-a-half trailers because that's 7.5, as in 75, the Airstream anniversary.
Bates admits he was inspired by Cadillac Ranch, 10 old Cadillacs buried nose-down in the ground, next to a stretch of Interstate 40 near Amarillo, Texas, in 1974. Cadillac Ranch is widely regarded as art, particularly since those rusting, graffiti-covered cars are supposedly facing west at the same angle as the pyramids in Egypt. Bates was going to let local "artists" paint his trailers with graffiti, but most of the graffiti turned out to be gang insignias, so he stopped.
Shortly after the construction of Airstream Ranch, things got interesting: Several residents of the neighborhood right behind the Ranch were not amused, and went to the Hillsborough County Enforcement Board. There was a big hearing. One of the neighbors called Airstream Ranch a "dirty deed" and "a cheap roadside attraction." Others testified in favor of Airstream Ranch, including Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, who said that in his "expert opinion, this constitutes a piece of art."
It probably did not help Frank Bates' case as a serious artist that he has been known to dress up as a black-and-white cow for his TV commercials, dancing and holding up a sign that says Bates RV can save you "MOO-lah" on a trailer. Or that he takes most anything in trade, including a moose pasture in Alaska, two mausoleums (apparently vacant) and a stuffed marlin. Or that he commutes to work in a red Robinson R44 helicopter that he lands on the dealership's roof.
Eventually, Bates was told to dismantle Airstream Ranch, or face a $100-a-day fine. In March 2009, Bates and his lawyer appealed the board's decision. Just last February, a three-judge Circuit Court panel finally overruled the board, and reversed the fines. Last March, county commissioners declined to appeal the ruling. So now, in June — after several months of waiting to see if there are any additional legal challenges — Frank Bates is prepared to declare victory on behalf of Bates RV, Airstream, art lovers, and presumably Sandra Bullock, who could use some good news.
Calls of congratulations still come in daily, Bates says. "People say we fought city hall, and we won. They think it's a victory for the little guy."
Airstream Ranch sits on the south side of Interstate 4, just west of Exit 14.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5699.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times