Smithfield proposes allowing permanent shipping containers in limited areas

Published 6:46 pm Friday, November 18, 2022

Smithfield’s Planning Commission is considering a change to the town’s zoning ordinance that would allow shipping containers as permanent accessory structures in limited areas.

The zoning ordinance currently allows shipping containers only as temporary structures, permitting them for a maximum of 60 days with a waiver, and up to an additional 90 days with a zoning permit.

The proposed language would add permanent shipping containers as a by-right use in areas zoned for heavy industry (I-2), meaning owners of I-2-zoned parcels would be allowed to place shipping containers on their property without needing town approval. 

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

They would also be permitted by special use permit in light industrial (I-1) zoning, farmlands zoned for community conservation (CC) and in the town’s highway retail commercial district (HRC). Obtaining a special use permit would entail an applicant making his or her case to the Planning Commission.

The ordinance changes would specifically prohibit shipping containers from being used as “a primary building or dwelling.”

“We do not feel these are proper for residential neighborhoods,” said Commissioner Randy Pack.

The debate over whether to allow permanent shipping containers in town had been sparked in June when Jericho Road homeowners requested permission to keep a container on their property and convert the corrugated metal structure into a storage shed.

Smithfield’s Planning Commission, in a rare 4-3 split, voted in July to deny the couple’s request.

When making the case for the Jericho Road container, which the couple proposed to paint white and add a pergola-style overhang to make it more shed-like, homeowner Justin Emanuel had shared photos of other shipping containers he’s seen around town – prompting Smithfield’s town staff to check their records to see which, if any, had been approved.

The results of the search revealed 16 containers located within the town’s borders.

One located at Farmers Service ACE on West Main Street would become permitted by-right should the proposed ordinance changes become law. The business is zoned I-2 by virtue of having a concrete mixing plant on-site. The same is true for those at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plants, which are also zoned I-2.

Two located at Beale Park are also in the clear, even though the athletic field is zoned neighborhood residential. The Smithfield Recreation Association was issued a zoning permit for the two containers as accessory structures years ago. Roofs have been added to each to make them appear more shed-like.

For the others, “we’re trying to waive special use permit applications and handle it administratively,” Pack said.

According to Community Development and Planning Director Tammie Clary, property owners with shipping containers located on their property will be required to obtain the necessary approvals, or remove the container.

Potentially problematic for the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department is proposed language mandating “at no time shall shipping containers be stacked.” The Fire Department has constructed a structure out of two stacked shipping containers behind its South Church Street station, and uses it as a “burn building” for live-fire training purposes.

The structure, which is laid out like a typical house with rooms, hallways, a staircase and donated furniture, made its debut at a two-day training weekend held Sept. 11, 2021 – the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that claimed the lives of 343 New York firefighters. The training event drew professional and volunteer firefighters from across Virginia.

The proposed ordinance changes had initially specified shipping containers as a by-right use for I-1 and CC provided they were shielded from view, but some members of the commission said they’d prefer all uses except I-2 to require special use permits.

The proposed ordinance changes define the term “shipping container” to mean “a portable, weather-resistant receptacle designed for use in the multi-modal shipment of goods,wares or merchandise, including a receptacle designed for the transport of goods” including the terms “Conex Box,” “Container Express,” Transporters,” ISO Container,” “Bicon,” and “Sea Cans.” The Planning Commission will discuss a revised version of the ordinance at its December meeting with an expanded definition that will include truck chassis, train cars and storage boxes. If the Planning Commission decides to move forward, the proposed ordinance changes will eventually head to Smithfield’s Town Council for a final vote.