A fight over long motor homes has erupted in California, with state officials enforcing a law banning motor homes more than 40 feet in length.
After several years of turning a blind eye, California's Department of Motor Vehicles has sent inspectors to dealerships to inquire into sales of the large coaches. California Highway Patrol officers have ticketed drivers. A bill to amend the law is ready to be introduced in the state legislature.
Enforcing the law could wreak havoc among consumers and manufacturers of the high-end vehicles, said representatives from a variety of segments in the industry. Travelers with motor homes longer than 40 feet can pass through California. But vacationers in them can't stay, and residents can't own them.
'We got blindsided by it. It was something that had never been an issue,' said Kay Toolson, chairman and CEO of Monaco Coach Corp. in Coburg, Ore.
The law dates back to the 1940s, and the RV industry made an attempt in 1991 to have the length requirement amended, only to be shot down by the legislature.
Evan Nossoff, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said the section of the California Vehicle Code that contains the length restriction has been amended four times in the past nine years. None of these changes addressed the length limits, however.
The language in the law is clear: 'No vehicle shall exceed a length of 40 feet.'
'We have vehicles out there that are illegal,' Nossoff said of the over-length motor homes. 'We have knowledge of it.'
The California Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, together with a host of industry action groups, is sponsoring a bill in the California Assembly that would extend the legal limit to 45 feet. The bill is scheduled for its first reading today, Jan. 10.
According to Toolson, this most recent flap began last November, when a motor home driver towing a hot rod was pulled over on Interstate 5.
The motor home's driver was rude to the California Highway Patrol officer, who in turn scoured the codes and slapped the driver with an over-length ticket, Toolson said.
None of the manufacturers or government agencies contacted for this story was able to say how many motor homes are in California in violation of the law, or to speculate on how much money is stake in the dispute.
But Mike Duncan, Monaco's director of communications, said motor homes more than 40 feet long accounted for 8.6 percent - about $50 million - of Monaco's revenue through the first three quarters of 1999.
Another section of the vehicle codes makes it illegal for dealers to sell vehicles that are not in compliance with the code. But the code does not forbid the sale of over-length vehicles if they are not to be registered in California.
Dealers who are in violation of the code face sanctions, including the termination of their dealer's license, Nossoff said.
Hal Stewart is the general manager of C&D Motorhomes in San Diego, which sells Monaco brand products. In 1999, Stewart said, he sold 12 motor homes longer than 40 feet. The average price was $300,000.
In November, an agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles visited his dealership, Stewart said.
Stewart said that all 12 customers who bought the long motor homes lived out of state. But the DMV representative pulled their sales records and contacted them at home to verify their residence, Stewart said.
'It's so Mickey Mouse,' Stewart said. 'It doesn't make sense what they're doing, but it's the law.'
High-end RV campgrounds also oppose the limits. Outdoor Resorts Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., for example, sells lots to motor home owners in Indio, Calif. The lots sell for $40,000 to $80,000, said David McMillin, marketing director for the company.
'We cater to the RVer who wants to be in a more upscale facility, and a lot of the larger rigs come to us for that reason,' McMillin said.
Outdoor Resorts, with headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., is a member of several industry action groups, including the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association and the California Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association. These organizations are part of the industry group trying to change the law.
Said McMillin: 'The statute is from another time. If it is inapplicable, (the legislators should) change it.'
Manufacturers are unsettled by the limit because they say enforcement can vary.
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., based in Riverside, Calif., makes three different models that brush right up to the 40-foot limit. With bumpers and tailpipes, some exceed the limit, said Dave Wilbert, director of marketing for Fleetwood's motor home division.
If California continues to ban the sale of motor homes longer than 40 feet for use within the state, consumers will likely go to another state to buy them.
'If we've learned one thing about human nature,' Wilbert said, 'it's that people have a way of getting what they want.'