By Jeffrey Turnbull
It used to be that self-storage developers would just go way out in the middle of nowhere, build a facility and it would lease up. That’s no longer the case. Our industry came of age some time ago, with a need for convenience and architecturally pleasing façades dominating new developments. We’re seeing well-designed, retail-themed storefronts near commercial and even residential locations. Finding these types of locations with the proper zoning is very difficult and often requires a site to be rezoned for the specific self-storage use.
You can successfully navigate the increasingly complex zoning landscape if you select a viable site, follow the rules, and educate your audience with a professional presentation. By following the four steps below, your self-storage development will perform better economically and give you a chance to succeed in future rezoning cases.
Before You Begin: The Site Assessment
It was once common to simply pass up potential sites that were not properly zoned for self-storage. Our industry has moved past this point, however, as customers demand conveniently located, high-quality and aesthetically pleasing facilities. You may already own a site (long-time family land that has become the center of a rapidly developing retail hub) or, more commonly, have under contract for purchase a prized site in a retail corridor (good traffic, demographics, visibility and access) that requires rezoning for a self-service storage use.
Note that I didn’t use the term “mini warehouses.” While this term is still commonly referred to in zoning classifications, it’s a misnomer, as it implies an “industrial” look and feel. You don’t want to convey that thought to planning and zoning officials.
Steps 1 and 2: Read the Rules and Do Your Homework
The first step in any rezoning is to do some research. Look at the current zoning of the site and local area and determine exactly what’s required for a self-storage development. This information can be found online in most municipalities. Many jurisdictions require the submission of a formal plan, a meeting with affected neighbors, a meeting with a development-review committee, and then a planning and zoning public hearing.
At the formal rezoning hearing, sometimes called a public hearing, a simple majority vote of the planning board may be all that’s necessary for approval, or it may require a majority vote and then a final hearing at city council or county commission. It’s important to know the rules of procedure for a successful self-storage rezoning.
The second step is to look at how the area around your site is currently developed. Are there nonconforming uses that may help you win a rezoning of your site? Perhaps your property has unique characteristics such as size, shape and topography that might prevent the development of the uses originally envisioned by the planning and zoning staff.
Look at the history of the site and area as well. Was it always a commercial or retail use, or was it farmland? Has the area had a tradition of allowing commercial uses? Does the existing area-zoning plan favor commercial development? In other words, if the existing area-zoning plan calls for retail or commercial development, your self-storage rezoning case is much stronger than if it calls for a residential development, for example.
Step 3: The Preliminary Rezoning Meeting
The third step is to schedule a preliminary face-to-face meeting with the planning and zoning staff. This first meeting is very important and should convey that your self-storage development will be high-quality and aesthetically pleasing. Your goal is to find out what’s important to the planning and zoning staff so they’ll support your rezoning, and what’s important to the board, which normally has authority to approve your request. Educate the staff as to exactly what a modern self- storage store really looks like. This helps you overcome traditional objections.