Is a shipping container a structure? A tale of the hazards of urban agriculture

The intent of zoning is easy to agree with: Ensure neighboring land uses are compatible. But that might be the only thing that’s easy. Zoning codes, like all laws, are nothing more than a bunch of words people have assembled to try to express a goal. An unfortunate saga out of Kansas City helps to illustrate this point.

Urbavore, a 13.5 acre urban farm, sells produce through a farm stand while producing compost from residential food waste. As often happens, the majority of the farm’s neighbors are quite happy to live next to an ecologically sustainable operation. But, a vocal minority raised issues with the city, and a zoning investigation ensued (also as often happens). Several aspects of Urbavore’s operation came under the microscope, including the use of a shipping container.

Urbavore Farm uses a shipping container to store farm materials that they use in production. We can imagine many farms storing containers, tools, and equipment inside a shipping container. At the same time, other folks consider these containers unsightly, and zoning codes can prohibit them. Kansas City’s zoning code says that shipping containers can only be stored in zones designated for manufacturing (and Urbavore is not in a manufacturing zone). Urbavore’s farmers argued back that the shipping container they are using is not being “stored.” They argue the shipping container is being used to store things, which is different.

Urbavore’s farmers instead argue that the shipping container is an accessory structure. What is an accessory structure? As defined in the Kansas City code, it’s a structure that supports the primary use of the property, and that is customarily used in connection with the primary use of the property. Let’s tease that out a bit. Does the shipping container support the farm? Many would argue it certainly does, as it stores essential items. Are shipping containers customarily used on farms to store things? That question gets a little harder to answer. Many farmers are incredibly resourceful and will use any affordable device to store things, including old shipping containers. (Speaking as the author of this article, my dad preferred to use old vehicles for storage on his farm!) Reasonable minds can disagree on what farmers “customarily” do!

If we conclude that many farmers do use shipping containers in this way, Urbavore’s detractors have yet more ammunition. The definition of “accessory structure” in KC’s code focuses on the “accessory” part. There’s also the “structure” element. That, too, is defined in the code. A “structure” is “anything constructed or erected that requires location on the ground…” Is a shipping container constructed or erected? Because if it isn’t a structure at all, then it certainly can’t be an accessory structure.

The prospect of debating whether a shipping container is “constructed or erected” is enough to make any farmer run screaming in the opposite direction of city hall. It seems as if anyone can find a point to argue if they work hard enough, at least when it comes to the zoning code.

At the end of the day, zoning is a highly political process that requires shaking of hands and building of strong coalitions to protect the things important to us. Learning the basic outlines of the zoning code and where different folks fall in their interpretation is a necessary part of that process.

Get help from Farm Commons in learning about your local zoning code by attending our upcoming FREE, one-hour virtual workshop, Exploring a Farm’s Legal Character with Due Diligence and Zoning Code Research. Whether you are new to a parcel or it has been in the family for generations, bring your questions and join us on July 23, 2024, at 11 AM CDT for a FREE, one-hour virtual workshop, that will explore techniques for researching the land’s legal character so you know where potential lies. Registration is free, but spots are limited, so make sure to register here today!