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Maximizing Self-Storage Land Use: Leveraging Zoning Allowances and Restrictions

By Bruce Jordan Comments

The concept of “land use” is often misunderstood. While it can be a great tool for optimizing the design and profitability of a self-storage land parcel, it’s important to fully understand a jurisdiction’s zoning laws and development standards and use them to your advantage. City land-use regulations vary greatly from city to city, and relying on a simple overview can often result in a design that fails to leverage a site’s maximum potential.

I’ve been working with zoning ordinances for more than 30 years, and there isn’t a week that goes by in which I don’t learn something new. My advice is to dig deep into a municipality’s land-use ordinance and peel back all its layers before you start designing your storage facility. One jurisdiction’s C-2 zone may be very different from the one in the next town over, so it pays to do your homework and understand the nuances.

Going FAR Into the Zone

I recommend working from the top down, moving methodically from the big picture to the little picture. At the top is a “General Plan” designation, which is a broadly defined ordinance from every city, town and county intended to guide development in terms of circulation, infrastructure, land use and densities. The jurisdiction’s land-use or zoning ordinance offers a more detailed and specific set of regulations. Many cities have other layers of ordinances, such as specific plans, overlay districts, incentive zoning and more, so it’s important to verify if a target parcel is in one or more of these special areas.

The zoning ordinance will usually enumerate the required setbacks, height limits, landscape requirements, required parking, maximum lot coverage and/or floor-area ratio (FAR), among other requirements that will affect the design of your project. FAR is the ratio of land to building area. For example, 10,000 square feet of land with a FAR of 1 would allow for a 10,000-square-foot building.

Most jurisdictions have either a lot-coverage restriction or a FAR limitation, but usually not both. Lot coverage affects a building’s footprint at grade, and the upper-floor area isn’t included in the restriction. So, on a 10,000-square-foot lot with a coverage restriction of 50 percent, you could build a 5,000-square-foot building at grade level. Since upper floors aren’t factored, lot-coverage restrictions allow for more options than a FAR limitation, which includes the areas comprised by the upper floors.

Basements and Lockers

Here’s why it pays to dig deep into the zoning ordinance. Some cities have very different definitions of FAR, so thoroughly understanding how they differ can result in a considerable area increase for your project. For example, many cities will exempt a basement from the FAR. In this case, if you have a footprint of 30,000 square feet for a three-story building (a total of 90,000 square feet) and you’re at the maximum FAR, you may be able to add a 30,000-square-foot basement to make it a 120,000-square-foot facility.

Self-Storage basement excluded from the FAR

Another way to maximize area is by paying attention to the definitions in the zoning ordinance. When cities define “building area,” they often exclude the thickness of exterior walls, elevator shafts, machine rooms and exit stairs. For a recent project, we added about 9,000 square feet by taking advantage of this oversight.

Another key point is most cities require only 50 percent or more of a basement to be below grade. This means it’s often possible to have drive-aisle access on one side of the lowest level and still meet a city’s basement definition, making it exempt from FAR limitations. Not all cities will exempt a basement from the FAR, but many do, so it pays to do your homework.

Another way to add rentable space beyond what may be limited by the FAR is to add lockers above an 8-foot-high storage unit. Most cities will exempt these lockers because they aren’t directly accessible from floor space that’s counted in the FAR. These lockers are accessed using a rolling platform ladder, so we typically integrate this option only in dense urban markets with proven demand. We use them sparingly, but they can provide an advantage in some situations, albeit at a discounted rental rate.

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