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Sea cans: maybe you can, maybe you can’t

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Pam Wright

Sarnia is looking to regulate the use of large shipping containers, also known as ‘sea cans,’ which are popping up around the city with increasing regularity.

A report from the city’s planning and building department proposes a number of zoning amendments that include restricting their use to industrial zones, limiting their number to two per property, and prohibiting them from being stacked.

“We’re intending an amendment to provide some guidance,” said acting planning director Alan Shaw, who hopes to have final recommendations for council later this year.

This unit is behind the Goodlife Fitness facility on Cathcart Boulevard. Glenn Ogilvie
This unit is behind the Goodlife Fitness facility on Cathcart Boulevard.
Glenn Ogilvie

Reusable sea cans are the container of choice for moving goods on ships, trucks and trains, internationally and across Canada. They are strong, weather-tight and secure.

And because they are readily available online for a few thousand dollars, people are finding diverse and creative uses for them. In some cities, they are stacked to create Lego-like apartment structures as part of the “small house” movement.

But Shaw said some residents regard shipping containers as an eyesore and object to their appearance in residential areas.

“You just can’t plunk them down in the yard,” he said.

This one is being used by the Sarnia Athletics Southwest Track and Field Club on East Street. Glenn Ogilvie
This one is being used by the Sarnia Athletics Southwest Track and Field Club on East Street.
Glenn Ogilvie

In 2004, the Ontario Building Code Commission legislated permanent sea cans as buildings. Many municipalities have updated their rules around shipping containers and owners must comply with specific rules.

Those units already in use for some time will likely be grandfathered in, Shaw said. But new installations — of longer than a year — would need a $240 building permit and approval from the committee of adjustment.

Residents will have a chance to provide input.

There are also safety concerns. The structures are airtight and dangerous vapour explosions can and have occurred, Shaw said.

This unit is being used by a resident near Davis Street. Glenn Ogilvie
This unit is being used by a resident near Davis Street.
Glenn Ogilvie

The main thrust of the recommendations will be aimed at maintaining neighbourhood esthetics, he said.

“If they have been there historically, we are not going to come knocking on your door.”

Using a storage container for three months or less —during home renovations, for example — will not require approval, and the traditional use of shipping containers for industrial and heavy commercial won’t be affected, he added.

A portable storage unit in use on Euphemia Street. Glenn Ogilvie
A portable storage unit in use on Euphemia Street.
Glenn Ogilvie

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