Shipping containers again take center stage in Elkader, hearing set for Dec. 11

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A revamped ordinance regarding shipping containers will go before the Elkader City Council—and the public—on Monday, Dec. 11. (Photo by Willis Patenaude)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


It’s been a few months since the shipping container issue has shown up on the Elkader City Council agenda, but after laying dormant for that time, it has been reinvigorated and is heading toward a public hearing on Monday, Dec. 11. This time, the council is prepared to present an ordinance that was crafted by the planning and zoning committee just a few weeks ago. 


Key portions of the ordinance that will be discussed at the hearing effectively removed all regulations bogging down previous iterations, even leading to the defeat of a previous ordinance on the third reading. No longer would containers need to be affixed to a concrete pad or foundation or finished with roofing materials, exterior siding or anything else that covered the markings and numbers typically found on containers. Even the requirement to paint containers, while currently being discussed as a possible addition, is not in the ordinance. 


Even so, there could be a complication in adding language that requires containers be painted, because it could deviate too far from the P&Z ordinance recommendation, thereby triggering the need for a super majority to pass it. 


The ordinance also does not limit containers to location, opening the door for them to be put into residential areas without restrictions as long as they’re not in a floodplain. Essentially, the ordinance allows anyone to put a container on their property with minimal regulatory oversight, something that has long been an issue for council member Deb Schmidt, who argued for at least painting them. As she has done in previous meetings, Schmidt mentioned Elkader is a “beautiful town” and she doesn’t want containers just sitting there. 


In September, Schmidt requested a moratorium to give the council time to come to a consensus, but that was defeated, leaving nothing on the books to regulate the containers. At that time, the council was discussing a much more restrictive ordinance used by Decorah, which did not allow containers in residential areas and regulated what they needed to look like. 


One couldn’t just plop a container in their yard and call it a day, but this gave rise to an issue cited by council member Peggy Lane, who does not want to turn Elkader into an HOA, overregulating what people can do on their property. The private property argument has also been put forth by mayor Josh Pope and council members Tony Hauber and Randy Henning. 


It was at the September meeting where Lane and Schmidt dropped their protest over allowing the containers on residential properties, which effectively opened the door for P&Z to drop the prohibition in their version of the ordinance. At that time, the board of adjustments was still opposed. 


During that session, Lane acknowledged she would be “going back on my word,” but still wanted some rules in place with regard to how containers looked, a position which also seems to have been relaxed, after she recently stated she’s “not prepared to tell people they need to go that far.” 


However, Hauber brought up the property maintenance ordinance as a way around adding any regulatory language. It could simply be enforced this way.  


“If we have property maintenance regulations, then that’s where property maintenance code should go and it should be applied universally…If we are saying that metal structures need to have a surface painting and can not appear rusty or can not have pre-construction markings and letterings visible, let’s address that universally. The things that should be specifically addressed in this ordinance are things that have to do expressly with containers, like maximum allowable sizing and flood plain consideration. I’m not saying this can’t include aesthetic provisions, but you need to have a very good reason as to why this aesthetic provision needs to be so specifically applied.” Hauber said. 


City administrator Jennifer Cowsert attests there is no building code to address aesthetic issues and she doesn’t read the property maintenance ordinance to include things like rust. Given that Elkader is a small town with a small staff, property maintenance is typically handled on a complaint basis, meaning no one from the city will be actively monitoring the container situation. 


This doesn’t even include the other myriad problems with enforcing the property maintenance code, which could potentially lead to liabilities if the city has to fix an issue, unpaid municipal infractions or even court cases due to something like an unpainted container. 


“There is usually an issue with how far do you want to take this,” Cowsert said. 


Another issue ever present for Schmidt is how many properties could place a container, despite Pope and Henning arguing to the contrary. That has often been used as justification to allow them in residential areas. 


Schmidt has continued to maintain throughout the process that Pope and Henning are wrong. It’s an assessment supported by Cowsert, who stated, “many could fit an 8-foot container just as they could have an 8-foot storage shed. Many could fit a 20 container too. I think mayor and Randy are thinking of the full 40-feet containers but there are still properties, both residential and commercial, that could have one of those.”


Brian Hastings, who was in attendance with other P&Z committee members Frédéric Boudouani-Bruening and Kay Moser, said P&Z used the Decorah ordinance as a starting point and “defaulted to utilizing existing code and ordinances” over creating a new one. Hastings also stated they “tried to find a balance” that would respect the community, while taking the needs of the community into consideration.


Boudouani-Bruening noted P&Z worked to find a solution that best suited Elkader. As far as things being left out, such as the concrete pad, it was felt that, if there is no regulation requiring such a pad for a pole shed, there was no reason to require it for a container. With regard to allowing containers in residential areas, Boudouani-Bruening replied, “A well maintained structure is not different from a built structure and therefore the same rules should apply with no further regulation.” 


He added that, in his conversations with neighbors and friends, he listened to people who were “concerned about having their lives micromanaged by cumbersome regulation.” 


New council member Daryl Bruxvoort, who was sworn in last week, acknowledged that, while he shares Schmidt’s concerns, he was “inclined to defer to the planning and zoning group” and handle any issues that come up in the “zoning ordinances rather than a specific prohibition or restriction on containers.”


The container issue will be open for the public on Dec. 11. From there, an ordinance could be passed early in 2024.

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