Can I put my shipping container here?
January 21, 2021 6:44 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about zoning shipping containers

So I'm part of a group that is trying to start a Library of Things. We are in the EARLY stages, and the group is very interested in the idea of using a shipping container to house our "library."

I am very dubious that this is as easy as they think. I offered to look into the zoning/building codes and what might be involved beyond just... plopping a shipping container down somewhere.

But, it turns out I have no idea what I'm looking for. Can anyone help break this down for me? Where should I start? What should I be looking for? Who should I talk to?

Also open to alternative suggestions. We are looking into indoor spaces as well!

I'm in Providence, RI.
posted by geegollygosh to Law & Government (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd start with these people. my jurisdiction, anyway, a department with that name is the one that gets to decide if something is allowed or not.
posted by aramaic at 6:49 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ha, aramaic, trying to parse the documents on that site was exactly what convinced me that I have no idea what I'm looking for!

I didn't notice the link to contact them though, maybe I'll reach out when I feel up to being laughed at by a grumpy buildings inspector.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:06 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

They can be grumpy, but (and this is a large BUT) they can also be extremely accommodating for one simple reason:'re reaching out before you done fucked up.

They're used to having to deal with huge fuckups that have already happened, laws have been broken, money is at stake, and everyone is angry.

The folks at my equivalent department were super, super, super helpful in dealing with several code problems created by PG&E subcontractors being dumbasses. Helpful enough that I wrote a letter to their political bosses saying they were super-nice people, for which I got a thankyou note from their boss because normally people only complain.

They were equally helpful when I was contemplating a backyard deck ("if it has these features then we need to get involved, but if you just do this thing instead, hey, no problem it's not our deal no permit required!")

So, IME (both here and back in Chicago, where I have literally seen Fire Inspectors make grown adults cry in public) if you approach them with a "hey, I just wanna make sure I do the right thing" sort of attitude they can be pretty handy.

...and if they're not, then you're probably screwed at the outset and either need to hire a lawyer or give up.
posted by aramaic at 7:21 PM on January 21 [12 favorites]

Calling from the planning office and speaking in hypotheticals is totally fine, they handle it all the time. Not familiar with your jurisdiction but this is how I’d otherwise do independent research:

Find a zoning map and determine what the zoning is for your property.
Look in the allowable uses section of the zone description and determine what storage buildings are allowed. It may also have useful info on how close buildings can get to property lines.
Further research the definitions of storage buildings in your municipal code to determine what the limitations on size etc are.
Read a “when are permits required” guide from your building dept to figure out what the thresholds are for unpermitted structures. These are usually called “bulletins” and most agencies have a bunch of them specifically written for homeowners and small business owners that aren’t hiring someone to, say, build their deck.
But the phone call might be easier. Also calling a local container sales office would be a good lead as they’re probably familiar with requirements.
posted by q*ben at 8:04 PM on January 21

I worked in a suburb in a group that interpreted zoning code. My bosses kicked out a cool business that someone was running out of a shipping container. You are right that this likely won’t be easy. Definitely call the zoning division. There almost certainly won’t be a black and white answer to this based on code as what you are proposing is unique. When it comes to cases like this there is a lot of person interpretation involved and staff can have a lot of discretion. If you can convince staff your idea is cool they may be able to use their discretion to help you find a spot to put your container. If this doesn’t work you could always bend your city council person’s ear to try to get an ordinance change to accommodate your use.
posted by nanhey at 8:15 PM on January 21

Took a quick look through the Zoning code and it doesn't look promising if you're talking about a property that is zoned residential. From the Zoning Ordinance, section 1302 A:
9. In all residential zones, a mobile home, manufactured home, recreational vehicle, semi-tractor trailer, shipping container, boat or motor vehicle shall not be used as an accessory structure.
That said, DEFINITELY call the Zoning people at the city. Many of the ones I've interacted with in other cities have been very helpful. When you talk to them, ask for references to specific code sections, make a note of them, and look them up - when someone cites you for noncompliance in a year they won't accept "the person on the phone said it was ok." (I speak from painful experience.) I've also had code officials tell me "you can't do that" and be absolutely wrong, so it's good to make sure they can back up their answer with a specific citation either way.

Where are you planning to put the container? If the property isn't zoned residential it may be fine. To get more details, you can find your neighborhood on the zoning map (anything starting with R is residential). Then you can look up the standards for that zone in the Zoning Ordinance (articles 4-11 for zone-specific details, and article 12 for the table of allowed uses), but a quick search doesn't bring up any other mentions of shipping containers in that document. Calling the zoning department may be your best bet.

Other potential places for a LoT:
  • Church basement or spare room (many churches are loosing congregants and looking for new ways to keep their space active and serve the community - I know at least one Tool Library that does repair & maintenance stuff around the church to "pay rent")
  • City building (I worked at a Tool Library in the basement of a city-owned historic building in Portland, OR - the basement is tiny and cramped and an ADA-compliance nightmare and will probably collapse in the big earthquake, but the city gives them free rent)
  • Someone's garage (some Bike Collectives have started in garages before moving to more permanent homes)
  • A shed. Not as trendy as a shipping container, but probably allowed by code and possibly not much more expensive. I couldn't tell at a glance if Providence specifies a size below which sheds don't require a permit, but it's common for anything less that 120ish sqft to be permit-free, in my experience. Another question for the zoning department!
  • If there are vacant storefronts in the area you could contact the owners and offer to do a rent-free "pop-up" LoT while they search for new tenants. You agree to keep the space occupied and in good shape, and if you're a 501c3 nonprofit (or can get a larger "umbrella" org to sponsor you) then I think they should be able to write off property taxes as a donation - but check with a CPA, I think you and/or the landlord has to file extra paperwork to qualify. Plus it makes them look like good, community-minded citizens (whether they are or not)! You just have to be ready to move out on short notice if they find a paying tenant.
  • Go mobile. Even if someone doesn't want to have people going in and out of their garage, but they might not mind storing a truck, van, trailer, or even a heavy-duty bike trailer or two in it, or in their driveway. I know there are book libraries, bike shops, and many other neat businesses and nonprofits that operate out of vehicles.
What are you planning to lend? A classic tool library would be fine in a shipping container, but I know a lot of Libraries of Things are carrying electronic stuff and musical instruments now, and those do a lot better with fairly consistent temperature and humidity.

If you haven't already, consider talking to your local library and any neighborhood/community liaison-type people from the city. In PDX, the first tool library got connected with it's space (the free basement) and the grant that provided start-up funding by talking to the person in charge of "neighborhood services" for their area.

The National Tool Libraries Google Group can be a valuable resource.

Good luck with your project!
posted by sibilatorix at 8:16 PM on January 21 [8 favorites]

If you can get a vacant storefront for free, they can probably deduct the cost of your rent, too.
posted by aniola at 8:54 PM on January 21

Maybe contact the people from The Box Office? They already have a shipping container development in Providence, and though it's larger scale, maybe they have some tips.
posted by beyond_pink at 5:56 AM on January 22

Response by poster: sibilatorix, thanks so much for those ideas!!

And thanks to everyone else too, I wasn't really sure what I was looking for with this question (was probably obvious!) but I feel much more prepared to tackle this.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:33 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine was planning to build a shipping container workshop. One thing I learned is that there's different qualities of containers. He was going to use a "one trip"; a container that had been manufactured in China, was used once to move cargo to the US, and was now sitting around waiting to be bought. There were a lot of leftover containers like that a few years ago because of shipping imbalance, so they were pretty cheap. No idea if that's still true.
posted by Nelson at 12:06 PM on January 22

Just putting this here in case it's useful for future finders of this thread.

I sometimes use containers (and other repurposed industrial things) to solve site problems, especially to get around intransigent/illogical council rules.

I had a farmer client with a small field who wanted a bridge across a stream, but council wanted ~$10k for permitting. The field was only worth $500 a year, if that. So he asked me if I could find a way.

So I suggested a 40' freight container, punch the ends out and tether at each bank.

The council really hated on me for that. I actually got an f-word level abusive phone call from council engineer for that - but I got my fee, and the farmer got his bridge. So a win all round. In NZ some less ethical councils appear to use the permitting process as an income stream rather than for any real reasons and I despise that kind of thing.
posted by unearthed at 1:27 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the question, I've been mulling this "what if" sort of daydream about... If I had to move back to hometown for some reason what would I do and one is a foolish idea of starting a maker space so this question is serendipitous for figuring out certain bits.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:07 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

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