County set to prepare cargo container policy

County commissioners have given Stuart Bonney permission to keep this Union Pacific caboose on his property.

Regulators in Umatilla County have dropped enforcement action against one landowner’s storage caboose but may soon develop a policy on cargo containers affecting hundreds of farmers, ranchers and other residents.

Five months ago, the county planning department ordered Stuart Bonney of Hermiston to move a relocated Union Pacific caboose.

The planners told Bonney the retired railroad property, which he moved from inside the city to along Highway 395 north of town, was not an approved storage structure under Umatilla County code.

Last week, the former buffalo rancher received notice that county staff was dropping enforcement.

The planning commission will hold a public meeting in Pendleton on Thursday, during which they will discuss a proposed policy for cargo containers — recycled shipping structures many area residents and businesses use for storage.

Tamra Mabbott, planning director for the county, said next week’s meeting has nothing to do with Bonney’s caboose.

They simply need to develop a policy for the hundreds of current and any future cargo containers in Umatilla County to make them legal, she said, as code technically prohibits their use as it currently reads.

“[The policy] is to clarify the existing code ordinance so it specifically allows these containers,” Mabbott said.

Wendie Kellington, Bonney’s lawyer out of Lake Oswego, said the planning commission is not being clear about their goals with the meeting.

“It seems like an awful lot of work,” she said, adding that the commission is trying to create a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.

Kellington said in her opinion, cargo containers are, in fact, currently legal under county code, and county staff needs to be careful not to adversely affect farm uses.

“Their proposed policy would make a number of them illegal, including [Bonney’s] caboose,” she said.

The planning commission presented a handful of proposed policy standards at its Oct. 28 meeting, including restrictions on placement, appearance and use of cargo containers.

If those proposals become legal code, the county would prohibit residents from stacking containers.

Mabbott said the county borrowed that rule’s language from a different county’s regulations; perceived safety and aesthetic concerns led to the need for such a rule, she added.

Another proposed rule would require property owners to remove lettering and paint containers to “blend with the principal structure or use.”

Doug Olsen, Umatilla County counsel, said this would make a cargo container “look more aesthetically like a storage container.”

He said residents looking to sell visual real estate would have to comply with regulations for advertising, but the county would not regulate art pieces, such as murals, on containers.

Mabbott said this rule came about after a few members of the public mentioned possible eye-sores. She also said landowners who build garages, barns or other structures on their property are not required to blend their appearance with other buildings.

Kellington called the visual prohibitions a “slippery slope” in an interview this week.

In a letter she sent to the planning commission Dec. 7, Kellington said the county “must be very careful to narrowly tailor any policy or ordinance to avoid overstepping constitutional protection for free expression … .”

Kellington said in her letter’s concluding summary that adapting cargo containers for farm and ranch storage “is not only a protected farm use, but one that respects the labor and raw materials invested in creating the container, reusing items that would otherwise go to waste.”

The planning commission’s meeting will be open to the public and is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the media room at the Umatilla County Justice Center, 4700 Pioneer Place in Pendleton.

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