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Getting the Green Light: An Overview of the Self-Storage Zoning Process


By Jeffrey B. Turnbull

Most municipalities have adopted a land-use plan for regulating industrial, residential and commercial land uses, including self-storage. The zoning rules and regulations protect the rights of property owners, control growth in an orderly fashion, and serve to promote the general welfare of the community.

By dividing land into districts according to use—and setting regulations for these districts—a zoning ordinance can govern private land use and segregate incompatible uses. The purpose of zoning is to locate particular land uses where most appropriate. It considers public utilities, road access and the established development pattern.

If you’re seeking zoning approval to build a new self-storage facility or a rezoning to convert an existing building to a storage use, there are several things you need to know about the process. Following is an overview of how zoning has evolved, the general process, and steps you can take to get the green light for your next project.

A Change in Perception

Historically, most city land planners have assumed self-storage was best suited for land and buildings in the back of an industrial park or at the edge of the county in an unincorporated area. As demand for storage has grown over the years, so have the zoning laws and regulations that control its development. Thus, the tendency to locate self-storage in the middle of nowhere has changed dramatically.

Modern storage developments are generally architecturally pleasing, well-designed structures—single- or multi-story—in areas of high population density with an affluent customer base. The industry has come a long way, and self-storage is now a mainstream use, with most new projects resembling office or retail buildings.

In several cities, self-storage has been included in a limited way for mixed-use projects, requiring offices, restaurants, shops and even multi-family in a high-rise structure. At a recent rezoning hearing in my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., a council member said, “If we’re going to have self-storage, we might as well have it look nice.” In other words, it has become an accepted use, but obtaining the proper zoning continues to be a major undertaking. The process takes a good plan and teamwork.

The Process

Normally, a self-storage developer begins with a parcel of land or vacant commercial building in an area with strong demographics, decent access and visibility, and availability of all of the necessary utilities. Usually, there’s also a good chance of getting the property zoned for self-storage, if it isn’t already.

The self-storage use of a particular parcel may be permitted by right, or it may be conditional through a special-use permit, which is often required in many commercial districts. Or the property may require a full rezoning from residential or some other district.

When an owner wants to use his land in a way that isn’t permitted by the existing zoning, he must request to rezone the property to a classification or district that allows the desired use. Often the local planning staff will require a neighborhood meeting, followed by a formal zoning hearing a few weeks later. This is sometimes followed by a city council hearing.

Each step in the zoning process is important. Any change—either a special-use permit or a full rezoning—that requires approval by a municipality is a challenge the self-storage developer or owner must take seriously to achieve a successful result.

The Initial Meeting

First, meet informally with the planning staff to understand the local zoning process, rules and challenges ahead. You’ll get a sense of what may work and what to avoid in the site plan. Is the staff generally receptive to your project, or do they want the proverbial “pound of flesh” in terms of additional landscaping, buffer yards or architectural features? Are the local rules structured to prevent the type of development you require to earn a decent return on investment, or are they reasonable? You should have the feeling that you can indeed clear all of the zoning hurdles to move forward.

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