Preventing confiscation of inoperable vehicle projects

By SEMA Action Network (SAN)

(August 13, 2014) "A vehicle is only original once." This phrase is commonly spoken among the "gearhead" community and rings so true. As time persists, the trend to totally restore vintage cars and trucks has made way for a heightened demand in "patina." Interest in preserved survivors and unrestored specimens — often referred to lovingly as "barn finds" — has skyrocketed in the last few years.

This trend is due in large part to televised auction and "relic picking" programs where less-than-perfect examples are sought-after prizes. Today, classics in nearly any condition are considered valuable in the marketplace, even if only as parts donors.

Unfortunately, many don’t share our enthusiasm when it comes to non-running projects, be it a historic gem or otherwise. The increasing number of states and localities currently enforcing or attempting to legislate strict property or zoning laws that restrict visible automobile bodies and parts in this condition is rather alarming. Often, enforcement of local nuisance laws allows these vehicles to be removed from private property with little notice, if any.

Among other reasons, jurisdictions enact these laws with the assumption that cars in this shape are eyesores and will lower property values or compromise safety by leaking fluids and chemicals. Often, law enforcement is given the right to remove from private property vehicles being repaired or restored under such measures.

Under most of these laws, "inoperable vehicles" are defined as those missing major parts, such as the engine or wheels, or are altered, damaged or deteriorated so much that the vehicle can no longer be driven.

At the SEMA Action Network (SAN), we believe that clear legal separations must be drawn between an owner using private property as a dumping ground and a "backyard builder" that is maintaining, restoring or constructing a vehicle. In some cases, it is possible to kill painful laws that allow governmental authorities to remove inoperable vehicles with minimal notice by activating organized groups of enthusiasts. At other times, reasonable and fair results must be reached through negotiating compromise legislation.

In these cases, supporting legislation that allows outdoor vehicle storage — so long as the automobile is properly maintained and won’t be considered a health hazard — might be worth consideration. Additionally, projects can be relocated away from public view or possibly screened using a fence, trees, shrubbery or other creative solutions.

During this year’s legislative session, the SAN opposed legislation in Kansas that would have provided counties with the authority to remove from private property motor vehicles deemed to be a "nuisance." In Kansas, maintaining a public nuisance means "intentionally causing or permitting a condition to exist which injures or endangers the public health, safety or welfare."

The SAN successfully argued that this definition provides no real guidance for motor-vehicle owners maintaining inoperable project vehicles on private property. With the aid of several of our friends in the Kansas legislature, the bill died when the legislature adjourned for the year.

In response to proposals like this, the SAN developed an Inoperable Vehicle Model Bill that provides language which can be offered to state and local lawmakers as an alternative. Since every state and locality is different, the language is often rewritten to conform to existing laws. The full text can be found online at The bill has been enacted into state law, as well as in local jurisdictions, where these proposals usually start.

Just last year in fact, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed into law SAN-amended legislation based on the model language. The bill originally threatened to add abandoned, unregistered, inoperable or junk motor vehicles to the list of items that constitute a public nuisance and allowed counties and cities to remove them at the property owner’s expense. Under the SAN-drafted amendment, abandoned, inoperable or junk vehicles stored on private property would only require screening from public view in counties having populations of 700,000 or more people. Also under the amendment, unregistered vehicles could not be declared a nuisance.

So, how can you get involved at the local level to protect these rare beauties from confiscation? Consider the following when working with municipal officials in drafting fairer inoperable vehicle laws:

    A statement protecting car collectors from an ordinance that would keep someone from enjoying this hobby in an area zoned by the municipality.
    A definition of collector vehicles that includes parts cars.
    A statement allowing an automotive enthusiast to rebuild and modify vehicles on private property.
    A statement ordering that government authorities notify the vehicle’s last registered owner and allow voluntary compliance before it can be taken.
    A statement ensuring due process of the law (adequate notice, right to hearing, etc.) before anything is removed from private property.

Experience has taught us that following the tips below will be helpful prior to beginning work on massaging potentially harmful inoperable vehicle language in your state or locality:

    Develop a specialty vehicle definition (e.g. vehicle is 25 years old or older; limited-production vehicle; special-interest vehicle, etc.).
    Band together interested clubs, organizations and individuals in the community.
    Suggest rewriting the current language so it contains new elements welcomed by both hobbyist and the community alike (e.g. screened from ordinary public view by means of a suitable fence, trees, shrubbery, etc.)
    Gain favor with local media.
    Be persistent in your efforts.

The SEMA Action Network (SAN) is a nationwide partnership between vehicle clubs, enthusiasts and members of the specialty auto parts industry who want to protect their hobby. Founded in 1997, the SAN was designed to help stamp out legislative threats to the automotive hobby and pass favorable laws.

From Driving Force newsletter, Summer 2014