Securing Self-Storage Entitlements: Understanding the Zoning Process and Your Role in Project Approval

Getting entitlements is usually a long process for those building a self-storage facility. Learn more about how zoning works, the developer’s role and why a project’s overall design plays a huge part in obtaining approval.

July 28, 2015

5 Min Read
Securing Self-Storage Entitlements: Understanding the Zoning Process and Your Role in Project Approval

By Kenneth Carrell

Getting entitlements is usually a long process for those building a self-storage facility. While the procedure itself should be simple, it can often become complicated. Generally, any difficulties come from the people involved in the process, namely government employees. There are many reasons why city staff will slow you down. I once faced a situation where the head of the planning department died and the city didn’t want the project to move forward until it hired a new director.

When it comes to zoning approval, it’s important to be prepared and expect delays. You should also have a good understanding of the process. Below is a brief look at how entitlements work, your role in the procedure and why your project’s overall design plays a huge part in obtaining approval.

Zoning Changes and Hearings

The first part of the zoning process actually falls on you, the self-storage developer. It’s critical that you research your potential site and find out how it’s currently zoned. For the majority of possible locations, you’ll find the plot is zoned for permitted use or conditional use or isn’t permitted.

I’ve had more than one project falter because the zoning didn’t allow for self-storage. However, if the site is in a good location, you can sometimes get the zoning changed in your favor. Many developers have been through the process to change it, which can be complicated. Still, if the governing jurisdiction is on board, an alteration is usually possible. It will be harder and take longer, but it’s often worth the effort.

When a site is under conditioned-use zoning, you’ll have an administrative or public hearing. An administrative hearing will take place in a hearing room with one or more public officials.

This generally isn’t public, though the community is often permitted to attend.

Public hearings are just as they sound. Community members can either support or oppose your project. Many are simple with no one in opposition, but that’s not always the case. I once worked on a storage project that backed up to a school. About 60 parents attended the public meeting to speak against it. However, once we responded to all of their concerns, we had them on board with our development.

Development Requirements

The next thing you need to find out are the limitations that will be imposed on the project. These might include maximum square footage, whether you can build more than one story, setback and parking requirements, etc. All of these conditions will drive your facility design, so always ask if there’s any wiggle room.

I recently worked on a project that had a parking requirement of 300-plus spaces. However, once I explained to the head of the planning department that self-storage is a low traffic generator and provided a parking study, the requirement was reduced to just 10 spaces.

There may be other design elements and stipulations that aren’t communicated to you in writing or even through meetings with city staff. These can include everything from the overall aesthetic of the buildings to the color of the unit doors. There are still some governing jurisdictions that don’t care what the facility looks like, but that’s becoming uncommon. Not only do they care about everything from the construction materials being used to the setbacks from the road, some have become very particular, so it’s critical to know their expectations upfront.

I once designed a storage facility near a sea harbor. While I thought a “Cannery Row” look would be a good design for the area, the city staff disagreed, then imparted their vision for the project. Once I changed the look of the building, they were agreeable.

Facility Design

Now comes the fun part: designing your facility. You can hire an architect, engineer and industry consultant or design it yourself. If wish to act as the designer, first check with the city to see if this is allowed. Most jurisdictions will require you to hire someone with experience. The process can be quick or be painfully slow, depending on your design team. The most important thing is to get it correct the first time, as mistakes can kill a project.

Once the project is designed, you’re ready to submit it to the governing jurisdiction. The submittal process is generally pretty easy. You visit the city’s planning department, fill out an application and pay the fees. The project will typically be assigned to a planner, who’ll send your plans to other departments for review. This can take a few days to a couple of weeks.

When the planner finishes the review, he either deems the project complete or gives it back to you for revisions. Typically, he’ll spell out the changes you need to make. Don’t panic if this happens. I’ve never gotten a project through on the first try. Once the planner says everything’s good, you’re ready to go to your hearing or, if your site is in a permitted use, move to the next level of the development process.

If the project is going to a public hearing, notices will be sent to the surrounding property owners. They’ll sometimes call or write the jurisdiction to find out more about the project. This is where things can go sideways. If people don’t like the idea, they’ll speak against it. The best way to prevent this is to hold a meeting before the public hearing and head off protests before officials hear them. If you can address their concerns beforehand, you’ll have a better chance of getting your project approved.

Community members often have preconceived notions about self-storage that are incorrect. Educating the public about the industry dispels these ideas. Other times, it’s a NIMBY attitude—not in my backyard. They may like the idea of self-storage, just not in their neighborhood. Either way, be armed with information about why the proposed site is ideal for storage.

Getting your self-storage project entitled can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. Complications can generally be overcome by creating a great facility design and paying attention to the details.

Kenneth Carrell is the principal architect at ARE Associates in Lake Forest, Calif., an award-winning architectural firm specializing in the self-storage industry. For more information, call 949.305.4752; visit

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