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Spokane commissioners OK zoning change to use cargo containers to shelter fire victims

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(The Center Square) – Call it a different kind of mobile home.

Spokane County commissioners on Monday signaled their intent to amend zoning codes to allow increased use of modified steel shipping containers as temporary housing for victims of last summer’s devastating wildfires.

Commissioner Josh Kerns said the containers, sometimes called Conex boxes, offer fire survivors a “safe and secure shelter while they navigate the challenging process of rebuilding their homes.”

During their briefing meeting, Kerns said the request came from Medical Lake mayor Terri Cooper. It was unanimously supported by fellow county commissioners Al French, Chris Jordan, Mary Kuney, and Amber Waldref.

Medical Lake-area residents and those of the small community of Elk were largely evacuated when the East Oregon and Gray Road fires broke out on the hot, windy afternoon of Aug. 18. The two blazes scorched more than 21,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes, caused millions of dollars in property damages, and claimed two lives.

County commissioners have been actively engaged in local assistance efforts in the aftermath of the two fires. They were asked by Cooper to sign a letter of intent regarding the zoning amendment that will be presented to the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group, which was organized to address emergency and short-term needs aimed at long-term recovery. The group is expected to vote later this week on whether to fund the boxes.

Currently, county building and zoning codes limit temporary structures to remain on site for six months with a discretionary option for another six months. Rebuilding efforts for many fire victims could exceed that 12-month window, and Kerns said cutting through “bureaucratic red tape” could allow the use of Conex boxes for longer periods.

The rugged steel shipping containers typically measure 20 to 40 feet in length and feature corrugated wall panels, frame, and cargo doors.

“Simple policy changes such as this will provide survivors practical solutions to address their immediate housing needs,” Kerns said in news release emailed to The Center Square.

Commissioners were told that the amendment process would play out over 60 days with notifications to the state Department of Commerce and the local planning commission. County officials would have discretion in determining “demonstrated cause” for fire victims utilizing the containers, in part to ensure that individuals wouldn’t also be placing boxes on their properties for long-term, non-emergency use. Temporary uses may also require issuance of a building permit.

“I think it’s a good idea so I’m happy to sign [the letter],” said Jordan.

While the facilities are intended to be temporary, French said, “It’s up to us to define what temporary is. And if we can extend the time periods to allow these folks … to recover would not only be the compassionate thing to do, but I think the right thing to do.”

Last month, the Biden administration announced a major disaster declaration which directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist fire victims. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover.