For many storage owners and developers, dealing with planning and zoning boards feels a lot like getting in the ring. But before you come out fighting, you should understand the political side of this “sweet science.” It’s a match you may be able win without even taking a swing.
This article is not about the legal intricacies or specific requirements of zoning for any particular jurisdiction. This is because the rules and regulations are different in every city, town, village, burg and county. On top of that, the rules change depending on who is interpreting them.
Whatever your locality, don’t expect the planning and zoning process to be rational, fair, easy or (especially not) quick. If it turns out that way, you’re one of the fortunate ones. Hopefully, this article will provide some insights on how to smooth out the bumps, keep your blood pressure in check, and maintain your sanity during the ordeal.
Right now you’re thinking, “Can it really be all that bad?” Sometimes it’s not, and then other times … In the end, it’s not about the law or zoning ordinances or property requirements. You’re marketing and selling yourself, your business and your project to a planning and zoning board and a community. The bottom line is it’s all about politics or, as Webster’s defines it, “the contests of parties for power.”
Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” He also said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Then again, Bacon was impeached by Parliament for taking bribes in office, convicted and then banished from London. So keep that little side note tucked away somewhere.
Know the Contenders
Have you ever noticed how some normal, intelligent, well-mannered, friendly people get on a board or commission and become, well, real jerks? They are now in a position of authority. They have some control, and they are going to use it.
Local commissions are often made up of professionals in a particular field, some good and intelligent people who really know what’s going on and care for the development of their communities. Then there are those who may be looking at the opportunity as a launching point to some much higher calling of public service and want to show off their political prowess. There are others who may feel the appointment is their highest calling and are there to exercise their power.
Whatever the motivations behind them, it’s important that you attend enough meetings before you present your project to be able to identify and work with each of these personalities. See who may be approachable and reasonable and who needs their ego stroked. If you can figure out which buttons to push with whom, you’ll be better off when your turn comes.
The best advice I can give is don’t fight them. Trust me, I know how difficult it can be to bite your tongue, smile and say, “Yes, ma’am,” or “No, sir.” But the more you argue, the more egos you’ll bruise, and this will eventually cause you delays or even a denial when presentation time comes.
The Filing Process
There’s always paperwork that must be filed within a set number of days prior to a scheduled public meeting: forms, plats, plans, impact studies, etc. This is real simple—find out exactly what is required and submit it. You can disagree, negotiate, argue and get mad, but if you don’t file the required documents, you will not be put on the agenda, and your case will not be heard.
Most jurisdictions hold public meetings for planning and zoning requests monthly. In some smaller areas, these meetings might only be held every two or three months. I’ve seen filing deadlines that range from 30 to 90 days. In addition, most jurisdictions require that a request for a zoning change or variance must be publicly advertised in all local newspapers for a period of time, usually 90 days. An official sign-posting notice must also be clearly displayed on the property during this time. As you are planning a schedule, crunching numbers and considering financing, keep in mind how long this process can take.
An old uncle of mine used to say, “If you can’t play fair and win, then cheat.” I wonder if he knew Sir Francis Bacon? Or consider the tactics of boxers as a match approaches: Sometimes, it’s best to “psyche out” your opponent. This way, you may be able to ensure victory before you ever step into the ring. At the same time, it helps if you can submit a zoning case you already know will be approved. But how do you do that? Here’s a strategy from one very successful developer (one of my mentors):
If someone in a community wants to oppose a zoning change or variance, he is required to file his reason for opposition with the department handling the case. It is verified that this person actually lives or owns property or a business in the area that will be affected by the change. His document is officially recorded, becoming public record. You then have access to this information, including the person’s name, contact details and reason for opposition.
Two to three weeks prior to the formal public planning and zoning meeting, you should invite this person—and any others who filed opposition—by mail or phone to attend a “town hall meeting” at which your new project will be discussed. Then set up a friendly gathering at a restaurant or coffee shop in the neighborhood, including some refreshments. Once you have your audience, you’ll want to present the following:
- A professional, colored architectural rendering of the facility.
- A list of the types of businesses that could be built on this property under the current zoning. (Subtle emphasis could be given to more “undesirable” businesses. Bars, clubs, auto-repair shops and gentlemen’s clubs are always good here.)
- A list of the security features of your project.
- Data demonstrating the low impact storage has on traffic.
During your presentation, emphasize that storage facilities are highly secured properties. Explain that they are well-lit, well-maintained and kept clean. Also explain that you will not allow vehicles to be parked openly for storage (unless you plan to provide open vehicle storage), and that the lease will ensure no belongings are left outside of units at any time. Tell your listeners that most facilities average only six to eight visitors per day, comparing this to the traffic that might be generated by other businesses. If you’re willing to do so, let them know you plan to offer a free unit to the local police department or women’s shelter or neighborhood non-profit organization. How could anyone oppose that?
Whatever you do, don’t argue. Listen intently and patiently to each concern. Address the issues you can, but remember you don’t need to have an answer for every one; this is not really why you are there. You are simply marketing and selling your facility to these people.
Finally, don’t be discouraged if some of them aren’t sold. I’m sure most of you have heard of NIMBY (not in my back yard) groups. Well, let me introduce you to another group with which you may not be familiar: the CAVE (citizens against virtually everything) dwellers. When it comes down to it, these people would prefer nothing be built on this piece of property. The fight is not against you, so don’t take it personally. The fight is really against change.
So Why Bother?
If you’re willing to put the time and effort into this pre-match strategy, you’ll be surprised how few of the complainers show up for the “town hall meeting,” and even more surprised at how few actually show up at the public zoning meeting. If residents who did not come to the initial meeting show up at the public one to voice opposition, politely ask these two questions: “Did you receive my letter/ message offering to personally meet with you and address your concerns?” and “Were you in attendance at our meeting?” You usually don’t have to say another word. If someone tries to stir up trouble who has not officially filed, you can simply ask if he has formally filed opposition to your request.
Third Man in the Ring
The most important decision you’ll make during the planning/zoning process is choosing who to handle your paperwork, filing, formalities and presentation. You may need to have an attorney involved with some of the legal particulars on the front end, but I don’t recommend using an attorney for the public presentation. Attorneys like to argue cases, and this is not the time or place for it. Remember, it’s all about politics, and facts and evidence have no place in politics. Think more about marketing and sales.
The person you need is “The Guy.” Almost every town has one. He or she is usually the engineer who does most of the work for the city itself. He has his own parking place at city hall, comes in the back door, knows everybody by first name, and brings doughnuts at least a couple of times a week. How do find The Guy? Easy: When you attend planning and zoning meetings, he’s the one who presents almost all of the requests.
You want to get The Guy involved early. But first, schedule a meeting with the person in charge of planning and zoning to find out if there’s even a chance at getting this property re-zoned or a variance approved. Then get a handle on exactly what will be required, how to proceed, and how long all of this might take. Finally, demonstrate what a great person you are (use your charm), and that you are willing to learn the rules and do what it takes to make things work.
Are You Ready to Rumble?
Or about to stumble? The match is finally here, and your fate will soon be determined. You have sacrificed and trained hard, psychologically worked your opponent, and developed a strategy. Now you’re ready to enter the ring and face the crowd.
It should be your goal to make this a done deal before the meeting even starts. Let me set the scene: You have squashed the known opposition. All proper notices have been given. The paperwork has been filed and reviewed. The plats have been submitted showing the building, setbacks, easements, etc. A handout has been prepared showing access, egress, traffic impact, etc. The colored architectural rendering is on an easel in front of the commission.
What do you do now? I suggest you do nothing. Don’t butt in. Don’t say anything unless directly asked to do so. You have a lot at stake here. You’re personally and financially involved. Your emotions will get in the way and it will show. Just sit close enough to The Guy to pass him a note if you have to and—oh, yeah—keep count. These guys have been known to cheat.
Whatever you do, keep in mind that if you get denied on the first try, you have a very big obstacle to overcome for an appeal. And you don’t want to leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, because politicians never forget an enemy.
Might there still be opposition at this meeting? Will there still be some unresolved issues? Most likely. But if you’ve done everything I’ve suggested to this point, any issues that come up will probably be related to a reasonable and specific problem that can be directly addressed.
The Final Round
The best possible result is your request is approved; the worst is it gets denied. Between these two outcomes is the possibility that your request is approved pending the resolution of certain issues or additional information. Or you could get tabled until the next scheduled meeting.
If you won the match, congratulations! If you lost, what are your options? Give up, take your loss, and find another piece of property, maybe in another neighborhood or town. Ask yourself whether the denial was based on sound and fair reasoning or was simply senseless politics. If you feel the denial was wrong, you can take your appeal to the next level, find out to whom the planning and zoning board answers, and start the sales, marketing and politics all over again.
If you take nothing else from this article, I hope you now understand that this process requires money, strategy, time and effort. Don’t take this step for granted— make it a priority. Or maybe you agree with the words of famous philosopher Homer Simpson, “Anything that’s that hard to do must not really be worth it anyway.” You be the judge.
Bruce Mc Cardle is the eastern division manager for Mako Steel Inc., a supplier and installer of storage buildings from coast to coast. More than 70 percent of the company’s business comes from repeat customers or their referrals. Mr. McCardle has been involved in almost every aspect of the metal-building and construction industry for more than 20 years. For information, call 888.795.7594; e-mail email@example.com; visit www.makosteel.com.