Johnson County wants to make sure it contains the containers as intermodal hub ramps up

05/13/2014 6:02 PM

05/13/2014 6:04 PM

Many booms and boomlets — in jobs, housing, population and retail development — are expected from the new BNSF intermodal freight yard near Edgerton.

But here’s one to add to the list that may not be so obvious: empty storage containers.

The people who plan Johnson County’s land use are betting that the old containers from the yard that are often unwanted by shipping companies may begin popping up behind businesses and on residential property all over the county in a year or two.

And they’ve already got a plan to prevent the visual blight that may accompany them.

Paul Greeley, deputy director of planning development and codes, said county planners have been working on the issue for months and have come up with some regulations to protect property values once the containers begin to appear.

The Johnson County Commission adopted the rules last month.

“We have tried to be proactive putting standards in place,” Greeley said. “Our expectation is that these things will become very prolific in our county and they will be repurposed for various things.”

It all has to do with the balance of trade between the U.S. and China. Typically, the containers are owned by the shipping companies and most are made in China. The containers are loaded onto ships bringing goods to the United States, eventually making their way by truck or rail to intermodal hubs like the one near Edgerton.

The problem is there isn’t nearly as much traffic flowing the other way. Excess containers begin to pile up because the shipping companies that own them don’t want to pay to have the empty containers sent back. Instead, they end up being sold cheap to companies and individuals that find other uses for them, Greeley said.

This has been an issue in other communities that have intermodal hubs, he said. When large steel containers can be had for a few hundred dollars, they begin to make popular storage choices, even for residents.

Hundreds of thousands of storage containers will be moving through the BNSF 1,300-acre facility. Some of the emptied ones will be loaded with grain and returned to Asia, and others may be recycled for the steel.

Greeley said there isn’t an estimate on how many excess containers could be expected to find new homes in businesses and on acreages.

“We anticipate individual homeowners buying and putting them in their back yards because they need a storage shed,” he said.

The typical container is a steel box that can be from 20 to 53 feet long. In some neighborhoods, that might pose a problem.

To stave off the visual blight and neighborhood conflict that might ensue, the county planning commission came up with some rules that the commission adopted.

Think earth tones. All lettering and logos will have to be removed and the containers painted in earthen hues.

Also, they must be removed from their wheels and anchored to the ground. They have to be set back at least 100 feet from adjacent property lines and 300 feet from the nearest house. And no one is allowed to stack or rent out space in their containers.

You won’t find them in the typical subdivision. Anyone with less than three acres can’t have one. Residents with 3 to 10 acres will be limited to one.

Businesses have a little more slightly more latitude in the numbers, but still must keep them set back and well-maintained.

The rules only address containers being used for storage. But designers have been working out other uses for containers for years. In 2012 the Blue Valley School District’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies class renovated a shipping container into a portable classroom and wanted to send it to Kenya. It was too expensive to ship so it’s a model project on display at the school.

Some people have made art from them. In 2011, artist John Salvest stacked 117 containers of different colors to spell IOU and USA in an installation near the Federal Reserve.

They’ve even popped up as dwellings. Pinterest is full of ideas for turning the containers into cabins and survivalist bunkers.

So far, storage container homes have been only a small blip in the Kansas City area. Debbie Glassberg, a designer in Kansas City, built a home in Brookside of five containers and now is working on a design for a container that could be used as an emergency shelter. No storage container homes could be found in Johnson County.

Repurposing a storage container fits with the economic times and the general interest in being green, said Glassberg, whose business, Home Contained LLC, focuses on uses for the containers. But there are some important things to consider before buying a storage container for home use.

For instance, the buyers may not know what has been shipped in the containers before, raising the question of whether traces of chemicals like formaldehyde remain. Also the previous paint may not be up to code. For that reason, Glassberg recommends replacing the floor and paint.

The design of the containers themselves also can be problematic, she said. Because they’re stackable, most of the boxes have flat tops, with no way for water or snow to drain off.

The dimensions can also be a problem when planning a container home, she said. At 40 feet by 8 feet, with a height of only 8 to 9½ feet, containers may run into code problems unless modified.

Glassberg, who has her containers specially made, recommends buyers look for the newest container they can find. That won’t necessarily be cheap, she said. Depending on the price of steel, nicer ones could cost in the $2,000 range.

The proposed county regulations do not address the containers as dwellings. Anyone planning to live in one would have to conform to the building code for homes, Greeley said.

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