Winning Project Approval: Working With Planning & Zoning, Local Residents and 'The Guy' to Build the Self-Storage Facility of Your Dreams

Bruce McCardle Comments
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Most of you have probably heard of the old yet still dreaded NIMBY groups (Not In My Backyard). Several years ago, a good friend of mine identified another, more ominous species: CAVE groups, or Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

Over his many years as a self-storage developer, with a lot of successful zoning-change notches in his belt, my friend came to realize that most of the really upset residents at public hearings are so because, when it comes right down to it, they don’t want anything new built in their neighborhood. They aren’t fighting against the development of a self-storage facility, they’re fighting against change.

This is an essential piece of knowledge to have when it comes to new self-storage construction. If you adjust your approach based on this public mindset, you’re starting ahead in the game.

However, it’s only the beginning. If you think a zoning change is just a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy, and that the outcome will be based on laws, ordinances and common sense, you need to back up and regroup. Believe me, common sense is usually not part of the mix. Realizing that you’re dealing with politics and egos, you have your second critical understanding of the process.
 
Understanding P&Z Boards

In most cases, those serving on planning and zoning boards or commissions fall into one of these categories: 

  • They want to become politicians at some point and see this position as a stepping stone, a way to get in the public eye and prove themselves.
  • They see the position as big-time politics and a way to demonstrate their incredible power.
  • They get beat up at home and work, and this is a chance for them to exert some “control.”
  • They’ve been thwarted by “the system” at some time, and worked their way on to the commission to “get things straightened out.”
  • They’re actually qualified and really concerned about the development of the community. 

Now that you know who you’re working with―or, more often, against―let’s start building your team. The key to your success is to identify and recruit “The Guy.” Every city, town, village, county or municipality has one. He’s usually a civil or professional engineer, and he and his firm do the majority of the design and engineering for the city’s road work, streets, bridges and other such public works. He has his own parking place at city hall, and he knows everyone in planning and zoning, permitting, building inspections, and utilities by first name.

How do you find The Guy? Simple, he presents the vast majority of zoning changes to the board or committee at public hearings. So do your homework, attend as many public hearings and meetings as you can, and learn the personalities of all the players involved. The Guy may be a “tool,” but he’s the most important one in the box. And it’s not only important to have the right tools, but to know how to use them.
 
Putting Your Tools to Work

Now that you’re armed with all this information, let’s put it to work. Step one: meet with The Guy. Invite him out for coffee, a meal, or a weekend in Vegas depending on the size of the project. (I’m kidding on that last one.) Sit down with him and be completely upfront. Tell him exactly what you’re trying to get done and where.

Ask him straight out, “What is your opinion on getting the zoning or re-zoning I’m looking for?” If he says there’s a good chance or “no problem,” negotiate a fair price for him to handle your case, and then support him with everything he needs―but stay out of his way. If he says “maybe” or “definitely not,” you may want to reconsider the cost and effort of moving forward with the proposed project.

Once you have The Guy on board and he starts the ball rolling, here’s the essential but often skipped step two: Most municipalities require that your request be advertised in all local newspapers, usually at least three times over a specified period.

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