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Planning Commission refers cargo container ordinance to DPLU staff


Last updated 12/15/2006 at Noon

The county’s Planning Commission heard public testimony on possible alternatives regarding regulations applying to the use of sea cargo containers as accessory structures in residential and agricultural neighborhoods.

The December 1 hearing did not adopt any particular alternative but directed Department of Planning and Land Use staff to return to the Planning Commission with an ordinance specifying changes to the current regulations.

“I think we should proceed cautiously and carefully and not bite off more than we can chew,” said Planning Commissioner Adam Day.

Although sea cargo containers are intended for the overseas transportation of goods, used containers are often sold to individuals for use as storage facilities. Those which have been placed in residential areas are often not renovated or improved, and complaints to the county about such containers have increased in recent years.

Under current county regulations sea cargo containers require a building permit unless they are less than 120 square feet and are used as accessory storage buildings without any associated plumbing, electrical, or mechanical permits. Containers of 320 square feet or less are exempt from permit and plan check fees under the county’s Homeowners Relief Act, and the container must meet all zoning requirements for use, size, and setbacks. A container on residentially-zoned property must have stucco or frame siding materials and appropriate roofing materials attached to the outside so that it appears to be a normal frame or stucco storage building; siding and roofing materials are not required in zones other than residential.

The initial ordinance proposed in May was continued until July to allow for a public review period, but the July version of the ordinance was unacceptable to the Farm Bureau and to backcountry residents. The draft ordinance was withdrawn to obtain further input from industry and community groups, and the report provided to the Planning Commission at the December 1 hearing included five options.

All of the options would require a building permit for the containers, would allow containers at temporary construction sites even if permanent use was prohibited (the containers would need to be removed prior to final inspection), would prohibit advertising on the sides of containers and require them to be painted a neutral or earth-tone color, would require a 50-foot setback from any property line, would make cargo containers applicable to square footage limits for accessory buildings, and would allow a two-year amortization period for permitted containers in zones where the ordinance would prohibit them.

The 50-foot setback encountered opposition from those who called it counterproductive. “If you put it out in the middle of a field it will be more of an eyesore,” said Potrero Community Planning Group chairman Thell Fowler. “I think the ordinance for a container should be the same as a house.”

Planning Commissioner Bryan Woods suggested the possibility of a variance from the 50-foot setback requirement based on natural topography and shielding. San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson said that the Farm Bureau could accept the 50-foot setback but that the distance would limit placement options and could eliminate the least conspicuous site.

Larson also suggested that an option be provided to allow white paint for containers near greenhouses so that the container would blend in with the greenhouse structure.

The option recommended by DPLU staff would ban containers only in historic districts. That option had the strongest apparent support from most of the public speakers. “It solves all of the problems that I know of,” said Campo resident Michael Thometz.

Thometz also warned the Planning Commission to expect a significant amount of applications to legalize existing containers. “There needs to be an education, letting people in the county know they have something illegal,” he said.

Another option would ban containers everywhere residential use is allowed and in historic districts. That would include all properties with residential and agricultural zoning, four special purpose zoning categories, and the Fallbrook Village 5 zone. A third option would ban containers on lots of less than five acres (commercial, industrial, and institutional lots would not be subject to any of the proposed options other than in historic districts).

A fourth option would ban containers in lots of less than five acres and would allow containers on lots of at least five acres if an existing commercial agricultural operation is verified by the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures (the Farm Bureau does not oppose a verification provision). That option also carries the possibility of smaller or larger size thresholds.

The final proposed option is a three-tiered option which would ban the containers on lots of less than five acres, allow containers on lots between five and ten acres if an agricultural operation exists, and allow containers on all lots of greater than ten acres. That option also includes the ability to vary the minimum lot size.

Larson requested that any minimum lot size regulations consider the total contiguous operation property rather than individual parcels. “A lot of the farms we have in San Diego County are an assembly of smaller parcels,” he said.

“I’m for an ordinance, but I’ve got a few concerns,” Fowler said.

In addition to the setback concerns, Fowler also noted that a ban would deprive property users of the containers’ structural protection. “Containers are fire-proof,” he said. “They’re basically rodent-proof.”

Fowler believes that what would be useful in one community might not be suitable for another part of the county. “The historic site, I believe in that, but I think a lot of it should be up to the community planning group,” he said. “These communities differ.”

Jack Phillips, the chair of the Valle de Oro Community Planning Group, expressed support for grandfathering legal containers and allowing new containers in residential zones by the discretionary permit process. “The planning group feels that use of these containers in residential zones can be controlled to avoid impacts,” he said. “We think the way to do this is with a discretionary permit.”

The Valle de Oro Community Planning Group includes Mount Helix and Rancho San Diego as well as Casa de Oro, and many horse owners rely on the containers for feed and equipment storage. “They are in widespread use throughout our planning area,” Phillips said. “The proposed regulations still are a bit unnecessarily excessive.”

Bob Stuart of Julian opposes containers in residential areas, including agricultural properties zoned as rural residential. “This option would leave attractive residential neighborhoods with less protection than current requirements,” he said of the DPLU proposal.

Jamul-Dulzura Community Planning Group chairman Dan Neirinckx noted that the containers are an aesthetic matter and that those who purchase property in rural areas should expect items which are more functional than fashionable. “This is not a safety or health area,” he said.

Neirinckx also noted the planning group’s opposition to 50-foot setbacks.

“If that’s the way you live, go back down to La Jolla,” Neirinckx said of the proposed prohibitions.

Marty Muschinske represented the East County Property Owners Association. “This is largely a community issue and should be regulated on the community level,” he said.

Although the Planning Commission did not make a recommendation on a specific option, the report will be forwarded to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors before DPLU staff provides a draft ordinance. “We will go to the board with this same letter and see what direction they want to give us,” said DPLU director Gary Pryor.

“I think we’ve got to strike a balance,” Day said.

“Basically I think there is a legitimate issue,” Day said. “They can be unsightly.”

Planning Commissioner Michael Beck doesn’t consider containers appropriate in residential neighborhoods but is willing to consider leeway for small farms. “To me that’s the key. If you’ve got ag use and verification, you can use these on a smaller lot size,” he said.

Beck also called for a need to distinguish between residential and backcountry areas. “Maybe that’s defined by use and lot size,” he said.


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