Fighting Unfair Inoperable Vehicle Laws

A Guide to Working With Your State or Local Government

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 enact these laws for a variety of reasons, most particularly because they believe:

  1. Inoperable vehicles are eyesores that adversely affect property values.
  2. Inoperable 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
  • Driveshaft hanging down
  • License plate with expired registration date
  • No license tag

Clear legal distinctions must be drawn between an owner using private property as a dumping ground and a vehicle enthusiast working to maintain, restore or construct a vehicle. An active coalition of enthusiasts will find that in some cases it will be possible to successfully kill onerous laws that allow governmental authorities to remove inoperable vehicles with minimal notice. In other instances, however, it will be necessary to negotiate reasonable and fair compromise legislation. In these cases, enthusiast groups might consider supporting legislation that permits the outdoor storage of a motor vehicle if the vehicle is maintained in such a manner as not to constitute a health hazard. In addition, these vehicles could be located away from public view, or screened by means of a suitable fence, trees, shrubbery, opaque covering or other appropriate means. This would help appease those who believe these vehicles to be eyesores.

SEMA's Inoperable Vehicle Model Bill provides language that can be provided to legislators and council members.  Since every state and locality is different, the language is often re-written to fit into existing laws.  The following are important points to consider when drafting inoperable vehicle laws that will not be overly prohibitive to hobbyists:

  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.

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

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

SEMA Action Network (SAN) staff monitors state legislative and regulatory activities to determine if restrictive inoperable vehicle laws or regulations are being considered. SAN will continue to alert enthusiasts when we learn of proposed laws and regulations which will affect the automotive hobby.