Jim McFarland
October 27, 2010

Inoperable Vehicles
You come home one afternoon only to find a ticket on your project vehicle that's parked on your property. Sounds like a nightmare scenario, doesn't it? But in some areas of the country, it's all too real. State and local laws-some on the books now, others pending-can or will dictate where you can work to restore or modify your project vehicle. Believe it or not, that project car or truck you've stashed behind your house until the new crate engine arrives or the cherished collectible you've hung onto since high school to pass down to your kids could easily be towed right out of your yard depending on the zoning laws in your area.

Why is the long arm of the law reaching into your backyard? Some zealous government officials are waging war against what they consider "eyesores." To us, of course, these are valuable on-going restoration projects. But to a non-enthusiast lawmaker, your diamond-in-the-rough looks like a junker ready for the salvage yard. If you're not careful, that's exactly where it will wind up.

Hobbyists are becoming increasingly concerned about the many states and localities currently enforcing or attempting to legislate strict property or zoning laws that include restrictions on visible inoperable automobile bodies and parts. Often, removal of these vehicles from private property is enforced through local nuisance laws with minimal or no notice to the owner. Jurisdictions enforce or seek to enact these laws for a variety of reasons, most particularly because they believe: 1) inoperative vehicles are eyesores that adversely affect property values or 2) inoperative vehicles pose a health risk associated with leaking fluids and chemicals. Many such laws are drafted broadly, allowing for the confiscation of vehicles being repaired or restored.

For the purposes of these laws, "inoperable vehicles" are most often defined as those on which the engine, wheels or other parts have been removed, altered, damaged or allowed to deteriorate so that the vehicle cannot be driven. The following are some common conditions that cause vehicles to be in violation of these laws:

  • Missing tires
  • Vehicle on blocks
  • Front windshield missing
  • No engine
  • Steering wheel missing
  • License plate with expired registration date
  • No license tag

In the 2009-2010 legislative session, hobbyists defeated bills in Hawaii, Kansas, Nebraska, Virginia, and West Virginia that would have established unreasonable restrictions on backyard restoration projects. In response to these and other anti-hobbyist efforts, SEMA has drafted its own inoperable vehicle bill that's fair to restorers, while still considerate of neighbors who don't want a junkyard operating next door.

The SEMA model bill simply states that project vehicles and their parts must be maintained or stored outside of "ordinary public view." States can adopt this model legislation as their own; in 2005, Kentucky did just that. This past session, Vermont also chose to protect hobbyists from a bill that was targeted at salvage yards. The new law increases the regulation of salvage yards and automobile graveyards in the state, but includes a provision stipulating that hobbyists are not to be confused with the owners of automobile graveyards. The new law defines an "automobile hobbyist" as a person not primarily engaged in the sale of vehicles and parts, or dismantling junk vehicles. Further, the definition of "automobile graveyard" does not include an area used by an automobile hobbyist for storage and restoration purposes, provided their activities comply with federal, state and municipal law.

A model inoperative vehicle bill should contain the following elements:

1. An explicit provision prohibiting a local area from adopting or implementing an ordinance or land use regulation that prohibits a person from engaging in the activities of an automobile collector in an area zoned by the municipality.

2. A definition of collector vehicles that includes parts cars.

3. A provision allowing an automobile collector to conduct mechanical repairs and modifications to a vehicle on private property.

4. A provision mandating that government authorities provide actual notice to the vehicle's last registered owner and provide an opportunity for voluntary compliance prior to confiscation.

5. A provision mandating due process of the law (adequate notice, right to hearing, etc.) prior to the removal of a vehicle from private property.

6. Language to permit the outdoor storage of a motor vehicle if the vehicle is maintained in such a manner as not to constitute a health hazard.

7. The condition that parts vehicles be located away from public view, or screened by means of a suitable fence, trees, shrubbery, opaque covering, or other appropriate means.

Experience indicates that it will be helpful to make a few preparations when you are working in your state or locality to modify damaging proposed inoperable vehicle language:

1. Develop a specialty vehicle definition (e.g. vehicle is 25 years old or older; limited-production vehicle; special-interest vehicle, and so on).

2. Build a coalition of interested clubs and organizations.

3. Propose fair alternative language that benefits both the hobbyist and the community (e.g. screened from ordinary public view by means of a suitable fence, trees, shrubbery, etc.).

4. Garner support from local media.

5. Be persistent in your efforts.