Selecting the right land parcel for your self-storage development is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for the business. The problem is it isn’t always easy to find a visible location at the right price in a market with sufficient demand. Add in the hurdle of proper zoning, and some projects can seem downright impossible. In fact, if you identify a market with a great need for self-storage, there’s a very good chance the area doesn’t have properly zoned or suitable land available.
Before searching for a specific parcel, research which areas allow for self-storage construction. Most cities will have a land-use or zoning map. Zero in on properly zoned areas first. Finding land that’s correctly zoned will save a great amount of time and expense. (Tip: If you find the right land but it’s not for sale, contact the owner anyway. You might be able to make a deal.) However, be aware that even if zoning allows for self-storage, some municipalities will still require a conditional-use permit before a building permit can be issued.
Once you’ve found land you’d like to buy, research local regulations to understand the process. This should be done before specifying timeframes and deadlines within your purchase offer. Start with the city or county website to educate yourself. If necessary, contact the city building, engineering or economic-development department.
Typically, zoning types include variations of commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential. Changing from residential to a use that allows self-storage isn’t usually feasible. With this in mind, research what kind of exemptions other developers have previously received. Minutes from previous meetings should be public record and may be available online. Some cities also make video of previous council or planning meetings available. Studying previous zoning-change requests can give you insight on what to expect.
The difficulty in dealing with planning committees can vary. For my own self-storage facility in Columbus, Wis., gaining permission to build was relatively simple but time-consuming. Although no group or city leader opposed my project, there was still a schedule of public notices for planning-commission and council meetings as well as a period for public comment. This process can take months even if it goes smoothly.
A well-run storage business can be a great neighbor and an asset to the community, but members of councils and committees often have concerns and reservations. Before public meetings, contact officials involved with the process and listen to their worries. Speaking to them in advance will help guide your preparation. Let’s take a look at a few of the areas that often are sticking points when pursuing a project and how you can overcome them.
Concern: The facility will be an eyesore.
Answer: If your chosen area includes older self-storage facilities that aren’t well-kept, municipal leaders and residents may fear another project will be a blemish. Many don’t realize this isn’t the case with most new facilities.
Professional landscaping is one of the most cost-effective ways to add curb appeal. Additionally, decorative fencing at the front of the property, an attractive sign, and upgraded façade materials applied to the office or end walls that face the main street are ways to enhance the appearance. While these features will add to your development cost, they’ll also help boost occupancy and rental rates.
In extreme cases, some municipalities may ban or limit a specific material, such as metal. This can be a problem, since most self-storage buildings are primarily metal exteriors. Block exterior buildings are an alternative in such cases.
Concern: The facility will generate traffic problems.
Answer: While traffic studies aren’t available for the industry, most facilities experience very little road traffic. Observationally, it’s less than just about any other business. According to the national Self Storage Association, typical residential clients visit a storage unit once per month. We estimate commercial tenants visit once per week.
Concern: The facility will invite crime and/or drug use.
Answer: A well-run, properly designed site should be unattractive to those engaged in illegal activity. Any new site should include a good video-camera system. A plan to include perimeter fencing and access-control systems further demonstrates your determination to maintain a safe property. Proper management procedures, such as requiring identification and taking photos of tenants, also help to deter criminal activity.
Light and Noise
Concern: The property will generate noise and/or light pollution, especially if near residential properties.
Answer: There are a few measures that can help mitigate these concerns. Fencing or natural screening in the form of landscaping or berms can be an attractive buffer between other uses; however, you wouldn’t want to do anything to affect the site’s visibility from the street. If the property must include a pond to manage storm water, this might also serve as a buffer along a property line.
Most self-storage operators install lighting on buildings rather than on high-mounted posts, which reduces stray light. Choosing “cut off” fixtures, which direct light downward onto driveways rather than sideways, further help to reduce light pollution.
Restricting access hours can also provide peace of mind to neighbors regarding nighttime noise and activity. Nighttime traffic at a storage facility is exceptionally low, so this isn’t a major concern for most clients.
Concern: It doesn’t provide enough jobs.
Answer: Officials may object to self-storage in their community due to the low number of employees required to operate the business. While it’s true a facility generally has few staff members, storage businesses support their economies through the purchase of localized services such as property maintenance and accounting.
If the alternative to a self-storage project is the land will sit vacant, you can bring up the benefit that your business will generate thousands of dollars in property taxes while not adding significant burden to city services. At the same time, it’ll serve the employees of other local firms and is needed by individuals in the community.
Risk vs. Reward
The site-planning portion of a storage development is a bit of a Catch-22. Most developers don’t want to invest heavily in site layout until they know the project will be approved and is buildable. However, the project won’t ever be buildable unless you invest a modest amount in design to present.
Before making your presentation to local planning officials, find out what level of information they require. In some cases, a narrative explaining the project may be enough. A copy of the site layout may also be requested, as well as samples of building materials and color swatches.
Expect to invest a minimum of a few thousand dollars in civil engineering up front, keeping in mind this may be money lost if the city rejects your plans. An architect and attorney specializing in real estate law may also be a part of your team. For larger projects in competitive markets that require elaborate presentations, pursuing a zoning change can easily be a $30,000 gamble.
Developing in larger markets tends to be a bigger risk; however, these sites also command the highest rents and potential to provide the best return on investment. Good luck on your next project.
Steve Hajewski is marketing manager at Trachte Building Systems, which designs, manufactures and erects a full line of pre-engineered and customized steel self-storage systems, including single- and multi-story, portable storage, interior partition and corridor, and canopy boat/RV. He also owns a self-storage facility in Wisconsin and is a frequent contributor on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit www.trachte.com.