The Process of Project Approval

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The Process of Project Approval

By Bruce Jordan


It is no secret that the world has become a more complex place today than it was 10 years ago. As governmental agencies, environmental regulations and community groups grow in complexities, so do the difficulties in getting projects approved. Although the nuances of each project and jurisdiction vary a great deal, there are many similarities in the necessary steps to getting a project approved. While traveling throughout the country, representing clients from rural Mississippi to the urban metropolis, I have found that the same basic principles apply. This is not to say that what works in Topeka universally works in Tacoma, but there are common procedural steps. Let's take a look at them.

The Basics

The governmental approval process has gone through a major evolution during the past decade. Our purpose and intent here is to provide a reference guide to assist in obtaining approvals for prospective projects. Due to the complexities of government regulations in today's environment, a proactive approach to government and community relations is required in order to be successful.

The developer has an inherent responsibility to maintain the public's trust and respect. Relations with governmental agencies and the communities self-storage serves are an essential component to a successful project and future. An individual's first exposure to self-storage, and to the development team, may be during a community presentation or public hearing.

It is important to keep in mind that governmental employees, planners, engineers, plan checkers, city commissioners, etc., are entrusted with protecting the public interest. Health, safety, welfare and preservation of community vitality is of utmost concern to a governmental agency.

I advise my clients to familiarize themselves with the local zoning ordinances prior to selecting a particular site. Knowing the basic development standards--such as setbacks, lot coverage, allowable height and parking requirements--will allow you to analyze the economics of the site more efficiently. Zoning should drive the site-selection process, not the other way around. A 30-minute meeting with the planning department can be a very fruitful first step to avoid a potential zoning battle later on.

Zoning Compatibility

The new generation of self-storage has gone a long way to gain respectability with many cities; however, the old perceptions and images still reside in the minds of many a planning commission. Today, we frequently see projects approved in residential communities, planned communities and on prime commercial sites. The reason for the trend toward more visible and well-located sites is driven by the customer.

With higher-profile sites comes increased scrutiny by the powers that be. Take the time to educate the agencies about the latest industry trends, the land use in general and about the specifics of your project. What may seem obvious to a knowledgeable operator may not be to your local planner.

Self-storage as a land-use has the ability to adapt, thereby avoiding conflicts with neighboring uses, whether residential or commercial. In residential communities, traffic, noise, hours of operation, crime, security and aesthetics are often the primary concerns. A well-organized factual presentation to local homeowner's associations can put many fears to rest. Being a good neighbor is always good business.

Development plans should always be presented during community and/or neighborhood meetings prior to any public hearing, thereby allowing a neighborhood the opportunity to learn about the proposed project. This is the time to educate those within the community to the nuances of self-storage, assuring them that this is not a high-traffic business, nor is it noisy or crime-afflicted.

I recently addressed a homeowner's association in an upscale residential meeting a few nights prior to our public hearing. By offering solid explanations of our perceived project, we were able to alleviate the homeowners' anxieties. What started out as an assault by 12 angry homeowners ended with 10 out of 12 supporting our project at the public hearing.

The Steps to Approval

The complexities of regional zoning and environmental regulations, land-use trends and, of course, politics will play an ever-increasing role in the project-approval process. The following comprises a general list of governmental procedures that may be required to obtain a project's entitlement.

The two main categories of approvals are permitted uses and discretionary uses. Permitted uses are allowed by right, whereas discretionary approvals are at the discretion of the agency, thereby requiring considerably more effort than permitted uses. Let's take a look at the various reviews involved in the project-approval process.

Permitted Use.The term "permitted use" generally refers to a land-use entitlement granted by the agency's zoning ordinance. Normally, a permitted-use project does not need to go through a discretionary review process, meaning that the land-use for the purpose of self-storage cannot be denied. Permitted uses do not require any public hearing, and usually plans can be processed within the jurisdiction's building department.

Design Review. The term "design review" is used here as a generic term. Often, agencies may have a similar procedure referred to as the "site-plan review, project review." Design review represents the first and generally the least complex form of discretionary review. Usually the process is reserved for non-land-use issues, such as review for conformance with agency development standards, setbacks, parking requirements, lot coverage, height limitations, aesthetic issues, etc. Assuming no variances from the development standard are requested, the project should be approved, since aesthetic issues can normally be negotiated and the land-use is not subject to review. Design-review approval is typically accomplished in a public hearing conducted by either a design-review board or planning commission. Occasionally, a jurisdiction has a zoning administrator who conducts the hearing and rules on the project.

Site-plan Review. The term "site-plan review" is a generic term used to describe a process of discretionary review over the specifics of the project's site design. Usually the land-use is permitted and, hence, the review is targeted to compliance with the agency's development standards and discretionary review over the location, size and layout of the project's components from a site-design perspective. Like design review, site-plan review normally involves a public hearing by either the design-review board or planning commission. Occasionally, a jurisdiction will permit a zoning administrator to conduct the hearing and rule on the project.

Conditional-use Permits. The term "conditional-use permit" is a generic term for a process by which the agencies have discretionary control over land-use, as well as development standards and aesthetics. Conditional-use permit procedures become more complex than design review or site-plan review because the issue of land use is now discretionary.

The conditional-use permit process requires a very hands-on approach on the part of the project manager/consultant. Typically, the governmental agency will be unknowledgeable of the specifics and issues related to self-storage as a land-use. It is during this process that a proactive approach is necessary to ensure that the agency planners are well-informed as to the specifics of the self-storage land-use. The information contained herein should be useful in addressing agency concerns and separating fact from fiction.

Zone Changes. Zone changes are sometimes necessary to accommodate a self-storage project at a given site where the existing zoning will not permit self-storage as a land-use. It is common for the governmental agency to require additional applications to be processed concurrently with a zone-change application.

State laws regarding zone change differ widely and should be investigated before one is anticipated. Certain states will allow a "use variance," which essentially allows for the underlying zoning to remain in place while the approval process continues to determine whether or not a self-storage site will be compatible with the current zone code. Normally, a zone-change amendment is reviewed in a public hearing by the planning commission and is then forwarded to the city council/county supervisors for ratification. A minimum of two public hearings is usually required.

General-plan Amendment. A "general-plan amendment application" is a more complex process. Laws regarding general-plan amendments vary widely from city to city and region to region. A city or county general plan is a comprehensive yet generalized document for guiding a city's or county's growth. It is not uncommon to find that a particular parcel that has an appropriate zoning classification has a conflicting general-plan designation.

Therefore, it is important to discuss the general-plan designation and zoning classification with the jurisdiction to fully understand any potential impact it may have on a project.

Normally, general amendments involve two public hearings, one at the planning commission level and one at the city council/board of supervisors level.

An important consideration for a general-plan amendment is to verify the "window" for submittal of the application. Laws regarding general-plan amendments vary greatly. Some jurisdictions will allow a general-plan amendment to be filed only once a year within a specific time period. Other jurisdictions have no specific submittal date, and an application can be filed at any time.

Public Hearings and/or Community Relations

The importance of establishing open lines of communication and an effective working relationship with a governmental agency cannot be overemphasized. With the complexities of governmental regulations, the often conflicting overlap ordinances, and the rapid pace of changing regulations, there is no substitute for a hands-on approach. The development team should have an organized approach to dealing with the agencies and designate someone who will follow the project through the process and follow up with the agency/staff person on outstanding issues.

Public hearings and/or community presentations require special considerations. A simple, uncontested project may be handled with a brief presentation. More often than not, a project can take on additional complexities just prior to the public hearing. Opposing groups or individuals frequently surface at the 11th hour.

The presenter of the project should be well versed in all the project specifics. Detailed technical information can be presented by project consultants, such as traffic consultants, geologists, sign consultants, etc., but presentations should stick to the issues and be brief, factual and to the point to convey the necessary information. A presentation that goes beyond the issues can trigger new areas of discussion that can get a hearing off track and headed in the wrong direction. Plus, you'll usually be notified in advance if more detail and a more extensive presentation is warranted.

Finally, anything that is offered as a concession or compromise during a community presentation or public hearing will be documented and become part of the project record. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for the project managers to ensure that the appropriate members of the project team receive notice of any concessions given during public hearings.

In Conclusion

Research is anyone's best defense when it comes to the project-approval process. Find out exactly what your local jurisdiction dictates and formulate a plan that is least likely to come up against roadblocks.

The second best defense in the project-approval process is to maintain a congenial attitude when working with anyone within the governmental agencies and neighborhood associations. It doesn't pay to make enemies when you're trying to gain their approval. Just remember: You can't fight city hall. Go in with a winning attitude and you may just walk out with project approval.
Bruce Jordan is with Valli Architects Inc. of Capistrano, Calif. He may be reached at (714) 443-0011.

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