COLORADO SPRINGS—El Paso County Commissioners unanimously passed a Land Development Code amendment Tuesday that included new requirements on county landowners who use metal shipping containers for permanent storage.
The new regulations require that all shipping containers on both commercial and residential properties be screened and painted and meet the land use code and regional building codes for accessory structures, including certification by a licensed engineer and setbacks from property lines.
According to the materials provided to the Commissioners, the county land use code did not have “specific language regarding shipping containers and there are no accessory structures design standards that would prohibit the use of a shipping container as an accessory structure.”
Ryan Parsell, Chief Public Information Officer for El Paso County told Complete Colorado the county has no good way to estimate how many shipping containers there are in the county.
County Land Use Planner Nina Ruiz said accessory structures larger than 200 square feet require both a building permit and an approved foundation as required by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department (PPRBD) building codes.
A standard 20-foot shipping container is eight feet wide, which is 160 square feet. Standard 40-foot containers, commonly used for storage, are 320 square feet.
This means perhaps the most common type of container now requires both a building permit and an engineered foundation.
County staff said that containers lawfully in place as of Tuesday are grandfathered as existing non-conforming uses.
But information from the PPRBD brings into question whether all containers are required to have a permit and a foundation or just the larger ones.
Because the county has not previously regulated the placement of shipping containers, and because most people are unaware of the PPRBD codes for 40-foot containers, likely because they don’t think of manufactured shipping containers as “structures” that need to be approved by the PPRBD or the County, as of Tuesday there are likely thousands of illegal shipping containers on rural properties in El Paso County.
The cost of a site plan and building permit, along with the cost of having an engineer certify the foundation and the shipping container can “run into the thousands of dollars,” says local businessman Hunter Hamilton. This he says imposes unreasonable and burdensome costs on thousands of current private and commercial container owners county-wide.
At Meadow Lake Airport, 40-foot containers are commonplace and are placed directly on the ground near homes and hangars. They rest on level ground, asphalt surfaces and on concrete.
In some cases containers are between hangar buildings and abut property lines, which makes the side setback rules, which range from five to 25 feet, impossible.
It is unclear if shipping containers are defined as “accessory structures” and must also be set apart from one another by three to 25 feet.
Where multiple containers are used, it’s commonplace for them to be placed directly against one another to minimize the total footprint.
According to Greg Dingrando, the Press Information Officer for the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, if the container is intended to be a permanent use it must have a permit and engineered foundation.
“To get the permit, a soil’s report and foundation plans would need to be stamped by a certified engineer and then presented to our plan review team,” said Dingrando. “One particular requirement for foundations is that it must be constructed to a 30” frost depth.”
County residents question the need for an engineered foundation unless the container is being set on sloped ground where it might slide downhill.
Unlike wood or metal sheds or other built structures, shipping containers are fireproof welded steel or aluminum and designed to be lifted and stacked as many as 20 containers high using connectors at the corners. They say the structural issues needing a foundation that might affect stick-built sheds or other structures don’t apply to shipping containers.
Ruiz did not mention any problems or complaints with current container use, and it’s unclear why the issue was brought up to the Planning Commission and County Commissioners to begin with.
“It’s government intruding into people’s lives and property,” said Ron Pace, a local resident. “The reason we moved out here is for less restrictions and less oversight.