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.
For example, additional buffer yards with heavy landscaping, special low-impact LED lighting, and all-brick exteriors may be very important in your community. You just have to listen to what the planning staff tells you at this point, and then try to incorporate it into your design.
Even if you don’t have a complete warm and fuzzy feeling after your preliminary meeting, as long as the staff was at least amenable to considering the proposed use, proceed to the formal request. If, however, you received a significant amount of pushback, you might want to pass on the site. A hostile reaction means your site may have struck a nerve deep within the planning and zoning department. It might be a historic neighborhood, future light-rail corridor or a high-end residential area. Any of these will require an extraordinary effort to overcome.
It just might be too expensive and restrictive for an economically viable self-storage development. It’s prudent to walk away from these types of sites. Pick a battle you at least have a chance of winning.
Step 4: The Formal Rezoning
The final step is to present your case for rezoning at the formal public hearing. Along the way, you may have had several additional meetings with the planning and zoning staff, a development review-type of meeting and even a neighborhood-area meeting. It depends on the exact rules of your municipality. These meetings will help shape your final presentation to the planning and zoning board.
You may be able to just go it alone, but the more complex the case and the more sensitive the area, the more you may need a team of experienced professionals to accomplish a successful rezoning. Your team may include a land planner, civil engineer, architect and, perhaps, a real estate attorney. Of course, you, as the developer, are the most important individual on the team.
You may be a first-time developer or a seasoned veteran, but always use some type of static display that illustrates what you want to build. Show a full-color site-plan storyboard with building layouts, adequate parking, traffic flow, storm-water detention and, of course, heavy landscaping and buffer yards. Show the look of the proposed buildings with architectural features and brick exteriors. Highlight the positives of self-storage, such as the minimal traffic impact, a quiet use—especially with climate-controlled and higher-end storage developments—and the minimal detriment to adjoining property owners. Explain that the traditional negatives—industrial look, light pollution and crime—are unfounded.
Your entire team of professionals should attend the formal hearing and be ready to answer any questions the board may have. Keep your presentation short, highlight the storyboards with your site plan and renderings, and sit quietly and patiently as the board deliberates your planned rezoning. The zoning code may allow the board to simply approve your request or may require a final hearing at a city or county meeting. Normally, this is a similar presentation on the developer’s part. Again, this depends on the local zoning code.
Do your research, and listen to the experts you’ve hired and the planning and zoning staff. If you present your case in a professional manner, more often than not, you’ll win the rezoning you need to move forward with your self-storage development.
Jeffrey B. Turnbull is the president of Kodiak Mini Storage LLC. He has been involved in the self-storage business as a developer, owner and operator for more than 18 years, and currently owns three stores in the Charlotte, N.C., market. He’s a licensed attorney in North Carolina, a licensed real estate broker in North and South Carolina, and a past president of the North Carolina Self Storage Association. He's also a frequent contributor to “Inside Self-Storage” and a speaker on various industry issues. He can be reached at [email protected]