Smithfield zoning law changes on shipping containers, public buildings, set for January hearing

Published 4:21 pm Thursday, December 15, 2022

Smithfield’s Planning Commission will hold public hearings on two proposed changes to the town’s zoning ordinance.

The first change would set design standards for government-owned buildings. The second would allow shipping containers as permanent structures in limited areas of the town.

The proposed design standards language would require new construction on government-owned parcels to be “substantially in conformance” with Smithfield’s entrance corridor overlay requirements, even if located outside the town’s entrance corridor overlay district.

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Smithfield’s zoning ordinance currently defines the entrance corridor overlay district as all land within 500 feet of each side of North Church Street, South Church Street, West Main Street, Benns Church Boulevard and Battery Park Road. Among the standards specified for new construction within the district is a requirement that developers use stucco, natural wood siding, brick or other materials “appropriate to town character,” and a mandate that “every effort be made” to preserve “as many trees as possible.”

If adopted, the proposed standards would make Smithfield one of only a few Virginia localitites that mandate design standards for public buildings located outside of an entrance corridor overlay or historic district. In August, after reluctantly approving Isle of Wight County Schools’ request to place a prefabricated metal office trailer behind Westside Elementary on West Main Street to house the school division’s special education department, the commissioners asked town staff to begin researching options for setting design standards specific to public buildings.

The debate over shipping containers dates to June when a family requested – but was denied – permission to keep a container at their Jericho Road residence and convert the corrugated metal structure into a storage shed.

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 keep permanent shipping containers on their property without needing town approval.

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 applicants making their case to the Planning Commission.

An early draft of the proposed zoning ordinance change had prohibited shipping containers from being stacked or used as dwellings. But the current language would allow either use with a special use permit.

The earlier language would have been potentially problematic for the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department, which has constructed a two-story training structure out of stacked shipping containers behind its station on South Church Street.

Following the public hearings, the Planning Commission will issue either a favorable or unfavorable recommendation to Smithfield’s Town Council. The Town Council will then hold its own public hearing and have the final say on whether either proposed change becomes law.