Supervisors approve cargo container ordinance
Last updated 5/3/2007 at Noon
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance regulating the use of sea cargo containers.
The 4-1 vote April 18, with Supervisor Bill Horn in opposition, approves a total ban in historic districts other than temporary construction and a grace period for existing legal containers, color blending requirements, and adherence to setback and total accessory structure requirements along with restrictions on lots two acres or less where residential use is the primary use.
“It looks like what’s before us, with a little bit of tweaking, is a reasonable compromise,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “I do think that this ordinance is as good as we can get at this point in time.”
The supervisors and the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU) plan to return the ordinance to the supervisors for review after one year, which would allow for amendments if needed. Containers which have been legally permitted but which are in zones where they will be prohibited must be removed within two years, so the amendment opportunity will occur before the expiration of that amortization period.
“I think it’s important to move ahead with this at this time,” Jacob said. “Right now we do not have an ordinance regulating sea cargo containers. We don’t have a board policy. We have nothing.”
The regulation had been by administrative policy. 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. Prior to the supervisors’ April 18 vote containers on residentially-zoned property were required to have stucco or frame siding materials and appropriate roofing materials attached to the outside so that the container appears to be a normal frame or stucco storage building; siding and roofing materials are not required in zones other than residential.
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.
The ordinance went before the county’s Planning Commission five times; the final action February 23 approved specific ordinance language after recommended changes to the February 9 draft ordinance while the first four hearings included public comment. 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. The December 1 hearing did not adopt any particular alternative but directed DPLU staff to return to the Planning Commission with an ordinance specifying changes to the current regulations, and that draft ordinance was the subject of the February 23 hearing.
The February 23 amendments to the staff recommendation included requiring containers to be behind (as viewed from the street) a primary residence, although the supervisors clarified that with language requiring the containers not to be visible
from any road running along the parcel. That requirement applies only to sites “where the primary use of the property is residential.”
DPLU worked with the San Diego County Farm Bureau to ensure that “where residential use is the primary use” (the final ordinance language differed from the words of the Planning Commissioner’s recommendation) exempted legitimate small farming operations. The county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures can certify a farm as an agricultural operation; this certification is already in use for zoning exemptions to allow farmworker housing on certified farms. DPLU will rely on farm certification for the cargo container exemptions.
The front-yard prohibition applies to properties of all sizes where the primary use is residential, and on such properties under two acres only one container is allowed, the footprint of the container cannot exceed 320 square feet, and the site can only have a container for 180 days during any five-year period.
Another February 23 amendment covering exterior color requires that the selected color matches the surrounding natural environment as closely as possible. The staff recommendation had required the container to be painted a solid color from a list of colors approved by the DPLU director. At a previous hearing a recommendation that containers be painted a neutral or earth-tone color produced a Farm Bureau suggestion to allow white paint for containers near greenhouses so that the container would blend in with the greenhouse structure.
The ordinance content in addition to the Planning Commission’s February 23 amendments also prohibits any container in any area designated as a historic or archaeological landmark or district while allowing containers in areas zoned for residential or agricultural uses if they comply with all building setbacks, are only used for storage, are on a property with a legal primary use and with no zoning or code enforcement violations, and do not exceed the total allowable square footage for accessory structures when added to other structures on the property. In all zones containers will be allowed at temporary construction sites even if permanent use is prohibited (the containers would need to be removed prior to final inspection), and legal non-conforming containers will be allowed for up to two years.
“The Farm Bureau supports the Planning Commission’s recommendation,” said San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director Eric Larson at the Board of Supervisors hearing.
Larson and other supporters of cargo containers have cited the security from theft, fire, wind, and rodents. The solid exterior often makes such containers part of best management practices to store fertilizers and soil mixes, the containers meet the county’s requirement for pesticide storage, and they allow hazardous materials as well as tools to be stored under lock and key.
The containers are also affordable and mobile. “The cargo containers on farms so far we think have been good protection,” Larson said. “We see no reason to keep them off the farms.”
Initial proposals included a total ban in residential zones, which would have included farms on residentially-zoned parcels. Although Larson opposed the outright ban in residential zones, he was willing to support a minimum lot size requirement or restricting exemptions to certified agricultural operations as an alternative to a ban on use in residential zones.
“The farms do want to be good neighbors, but we think so far it’s been proven that the cargo containers do not create a conflict,” Larson said.
The Farm Bureau had previously noted that many farms utilize multiple adjacent parcels which individually may be less than a minimum lot size. Previous hearings also had determined that the Farm Bureau was willing to accept a ban in historic districts.
Richard Hensle of Lakeside sought a ban in residential neighborhoods. “The containers are unsightly, and I think they degrade the community character,” he said. “I think they should be re-used and shipped back.”
Hensle also told the supervisors that he had seen commercial businesses use the containers in lieu of warehouses and recommended a limit on the number of containers on a commercially-zoned parcel.
The Jamul-Dulzura Community Planning Group sought an exemption for their community. “The present proposal, while palatable, is not completely acceptable,” said Dan Neirinckx, who represented the Jamul-Dulzura Community Planning Group.
Neirinckx noted that the community character of Jamul and Dulzura is equestrian-oriented and that many containers are used for storage of equestrian items. He suggested that such containers be allowed in any residential lot where zoning allows for large animals.
“They are used very successfully in our community,” Neirinckx said. “They do serve a very useful purpose.”
Neirinckx acknowledged that some communities have had problems with cargo containers. “We don’t seem to have that problem,” he said.
“Rural residential, I think, should be considered different from other residential areas,” Neirinckx said. “Valle de Oro is quite different from our rural residential in Jamul.”
The Valle de Oro Community Planning Area includes Mount Helix and Rancho San Diego as well as Casa de Oro, and at the December 1 Planning Commission hearing Valle de Oro Community Planning Group chair Jack Phillips had noted that many horse owners rely on the containers for feed and equipment storage. Phillips recommended support for grandfathering legal containers and allowing new containers in residential zones by the discretionary permit process. Phillips was not present at the Board of Supervisors hearing.
The Pine Valley Community Planning Group seeks further restrictions. “Cargo containers are not compatible with our community character,” said Bob Smith, who represented the Pine Valley Community Planning Group.
Pine Valley is surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest. Old Highway 80, a designated historical highway, runs through Pine Valley, and Sunrise Highway, a designated scenic highway, overlooks Pine Valley. Most of Pine Valley’s approximately 750 houses are on small lots. “Cargo containers just don’t work in Pine Valley,” Smith said. “Pine Valley is fearful of being saddled with one ordinance fits all.”
George Kochel is also afraid of a one-size-fits-all ordinance. Kochel owns a 1.8-acre parcel in Alpine which currently has two permitted containers. “It’s just kind of frustrating to go through the process and not get grandfathered,” he said.
Those containers are located behind his house and more than 400 feet from the road, so they are not visible from the road. He noted that the cost of a replacement metal building, including permits, would be approximately $35,000.
Kochel added that a wood frame structure wouldn’t meet his protection needs. He has already lost a shop roof due to high winds. “Cargo containers offer a low-cost option for safe, secure storage,” he said.
Kochel told the supervisors that metal sheds were not only also vulnerable to winds but often even less attractive than cargo containers. Kochel also noted that he would have to pay the cost of removing the cargo containers, and since they would no longer be welcome on residential lots of less than two acres he would have no market. “This will add up to quite a lot of money,” he said.
Kochel added that some owners wouldn’t pay for removal. “The containers would most likely be dumped in the backcountry,” he said.
Kochel proposed an amendment to allow screening. Kochel’s family has owned the property since 1949, and he expressed displeasure about those moving into a rural community and taking issue with what was acceptable to previous residents.
Janis Shackleford of Blossom Valley had hoped for a stricter ordinance. “It does not ensure compatibility,” she said.
Shackleford noted that the screening requirements allow for a single coat of paint. “That is not screening,” she said.
She noted that while cargo containers will be allowed on lots of two acres or larger or on farms, no limit to the number of containers other than the total square footage allowance exists. “That is not compatible with a residential community character,” she said. “I do not believe an unscreened cargo container contributes to my desirable community character.”
Shackleford told the supervisors that the cities of El Cajon and Escondido prohibit such containers while Poway requires a minor use permit.
“They’re not real pretty, but they’re very useful,” said Marty Muschinske, who lives in Jamul. “They are ideal storage units for things such as horse feed and other animal feed.”
The April 18 hearing took place on the 101st anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and Muschinske noted that April is Earthquake Awareness Month. “If there’s a structure that’s going to be standing after the next earthquake, it’s going to be a container,” he said.
“If left as is the ordinance produces a huge loophole for any boxcar,” said Bob Stuart of Julian.
Although a primarily residential site under two acres can only have a container for 180 days during any five-year period, Stuart noted that it would be tough to keep track of sites at their limit. “The proposed ordinance is an administrative nightmare,” he said.
“The ordinance will probably go unheeded,” said Juli Zerbe of Julian. “There is currently no proactive code enforcement in our community.”
Part of the initial quest for a ban involved containers in the Julian Historic District. “We are rapidly losing the charm and community character of the Julian Historic District,” Zerbe said.
Jacob echoed the need for enforcement. “Whenever we enact an ordinance, it really doesn’t mean anything unless there’s going to be some enforcement teeth behind it,” she said.
Code enforcement is performed on a complaint basis. “We do enforce, but we do not go out and do sweeps,” said Department of Planning and Land Use director Gary Pryor.
Smith had provided photos to the supervisors. “Some of these are truck boxes, unmounted truck boxes,” Horn said. “One of the boxes was a truck trailer still on its wheels.”
Horn noted that addressing that concern didn’t necessitate penalizing small rural properties. “This doesn’t really solve that kind of a problem,” he said of the ordinance.
“I do understand the complaint that these things are unsightly,” Horn said. “I don’t think this ordinance is going to solve the real problem.”
Horn acknowledged the utility of the containers. “People do need them for storage,” he said. “This is another regulation that doesn’t grandfather, I think, good installations.”
Supervisor Greg Cox feared the alternatives which might be used to replace the containers. “We may be setting ourselves up that the new cargo containers will be old trucks,” he said.
Although code enforcement can call for the removal of inoperable vehicles, a vehicle more than 25 years old is considered a vintage vehicle and is exempt. “I’ve got three other ways to solve this problem, too, but I don’t want to give the public any ideas,” Horn said.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Supervisor Ron Roberts said of the ordinance.
“I don’t think it’s strong enough, personally,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “I’m going to be looking to see what results.”