The Process of Project Approval

September 1, 1997

8 Min Read
The Process of Project Approval

The Process of Project Approval

By Bruce Jordan

It is no secret that the world has become a more complex placetoday than it was 10 years ago. As governmental agencies, environmentalregulations and community groups grow in complexities, so do thedifficulties in getting projects approved. Although the nuancesof each project and jurisdiction vary a great deal, there aremany similarities in the necessary steps to getting a projectapproved. While traveling throughout the country, representingclients from rural Mississippi to the urban metropolis, I havefound that the same basic principles apply. This is not to saythat what works in Topeka universally works in Tacoma, but thereare common procedural steps. Let's take a look at them.

The Basics

The governmental approval process has gone through a majorevolution during the past decade. Our purpose and intent here isto provide a reference guide to assist in obtaining approvals forprospective projects. Due to the complexities of governmentregulations in today's environment, a proactive approach togovernment and community relations is required in order to besuccessful.

The developer has an inherent responsibility to maintain thepublic's trust and respect. Relations with governmental agenciesand the communities self-storage serves are an essentialcomponent to a successful project and future. An individual'sfirst exposure to self-storage, and to the development team, maybe during a community presentation or public hearing.

It is important to keep in mind that governmental employees,planners, engineers, plan checkers, city commissioners, etc., areentrusted with protecting the public interest. Health, safety,welfare and preservation of community vitality is of utmostconcern to a governmental agency.

I advise my clients to familiarize themselves with the localzoning ordinances prior to selecting a particular site. Knowingthe basic development standards--such as setbacks, lot coverage,allowable height and parking requirements--will allow you toanalyze the economics of the site more efficiently. Zoning shoulddrive the site-selection process, not the other way around. A30-minute meeting with the planning department can be a veryfruitful first step to avoid a potential zoning battle later on.

Zoning Compatibility

The new generation of self-storage has gone a long way to gainrespectability with many cities; however, the old perceptions andimages still reside in the minds of many a planning commission.Today, we frequently see projects approved in residentialcommunities, planned communities and on prime commercial sites.The reason for the trend toward more visible and well-locatedsites is driven by the customer.

With higher-profile sites comes increased scrutiny by thepowers that be. Take the time to educate the agencies about thelatest industry trends, the land use in general and about thespecifics of your project. What may seem obvious to aknowledgeable operator may not be to your local planner.

Self-storage as a land-use has the ability to adapt, therebyavoiding conflicts with neighboring uses, whether residential orcommercial. In residential communities, traffic, noise, hours ofoperation, crime, security and aesthetics are often the primaryconcerns. A well-organized factual presentation to localhomeowner's associations can put many fears to rest. Being a goodneighbor is always good business.

Development plans should always be presented during communityand/or neighborhood meetings prior to any public hearing, therebyallowing a neighborhood the opportunity to learn about theproposed project. This is the time to educate those within thecommunity to the nuances of self-storage, assuring them that thisis not a high-traffic business, nor is it noisy orcrime-afflicted.

I recently addressed a homeowner's association in an upscaleresidential meeting a few nights prior to our public hearing. Byoffering solid explanations of our perceived project, we wereable to alleviate the homeowners' anxieties. What started out asan assault by 12 angry homeowners ended with 10 out of 12supporting our project at the public hearing.

The Steps to Approval

The complexities of regional zoning and environmentalregulations, land-use trends and, of course, politics will playan ever-increasing role in the project-approval process. Thefollowing comprises a general list of governmental proceduresthat may be required to obtain a project's entitlement.

The two main categories of approvals are permitted uses anddiscretionary uses. Permitted uses are allowed by right, whereasdiscretionary approvals are at the discretion of the agency,thereby requiring considerably more effort than permitted uses.Let's take a look at the various reviews involved in theproject-approval process.

Permitted Use.The term "permitted use"generally refers to a land-use entitlement granted by theagency's zoning ordinance. Normally, a permitted-use project doesnot need to go through a discretionary review process, meaningthat the land-use for the purpose of self-storage cannot bedenied. Permitted uses do not require any public hearing, andusually plans can be processed within the jurisdiction's buildingdepartment.

Design Review. The term "design review" isused here as a generic term. Often, agencies may have a similarprocedure referred to as the "site-plan review, projectreview." Design review represents the first and generallythe least complex form of discretionary review. Usually theprocess is reserved for non-land-use issues, such as review forconformance with agency development standards, setbacks, parkingrequirements, lot coverage, height limitations, aesthetic issues,etc. Assuming no variances from the development standard arerequested, the project should be approved, since aesthetic issuescan normally be negotiated and the land-use is not subject toreview. Design-review approval is typically accomplished in apublic hearing conducted by either a design-review board orplanning commission. Occasionally, a jurisdiction has a zoningadministrator who conducts the hearing and rules on the project.

Site-plan Review. The term "site-plan review"is a generic term used to describe a process of discretionaryreview over the specifics of the project's site design. Usuallythe land-use is permitted and, hence, the review is targeted tocompliance with the agency's development standards anddiscretionary review over the location, size and layout of theproject's components from a site-design perspective. Like designreview, site-plan review normally involves a public hearing byeither the design-review board or planning commission.Occasionally, a jurisdiction will permit a zoning administratorto conduct the hearing and rule on the project.

Conditional-use Permits. The term "conditional-usepermit" is a generic term for a process by which theagencies have discretionary control over land-use, as well asdevelopment standards and aesthetics. Conditional-use permitprocedures become more complex than design review or site-planreview because the issue of land use is now discretionary.

The conditional-use permit process requires a very hands-onapproach on the part of the project manager/consultant.Typically, the governmental agency will be unknowledgeable of thespecifics and issues related to self-storage as a land-use. It isduring this process that a proactive approach is necessary toensure that the agency planners are well-informed as to thespecifics of the self-storage land-use. The information containedherein should be useful in addressing agency concerns andseparating fact from fiction.

Zone Changes. Zone changes are sometimes necessary toaccommodate a self-storage project at a given site where theexisting zoning will not permit self-storage as a land-use. It iscommon for the governmental agency to require additionalapplications to be processed concurrently with a zone-changeapplication.

State laws regarding zone change differ widely and should beinvestigated before one is anticipated. Certain states will allowa "use variance," which essentially allows for theunderlying zoning to remain in place while the approval processcontinues to determine whether or not a self-storage site will becompatible with the current zone code. Normally, a zone-changeamendment is reviewed in a public hearing by the planningcommission and is then forwarded to the city council/countysupervisors for ratification. A minimum of two public hearings isusually required.

General-plan Amendment. A "general-plan amendmentapplication" is a more complex process. Laws regardinggeneral-plan amendments vary widely from city to city and regionto region. A city or county general plan is a comprehensive yetgeneralized document for guiding a city's or county's growth. Itis not uncommon to find that a particular parcel that has anappropriate zoning classification has a conflicting general-plandesignation.

Therefore, it is important to discuss the general-plandesignation and zoning classification with the jurisdiction tofully understand any potential impact it may have on a project.

Normally, general amendments involve two public hearings, oneat the planning commission level and one at the citycouncil/board of supervisors level.

An important consideration for a general-plan amendment is toverify the "window" for submittal of the application.Laws regarding general-plan amendments vary greatly. Somejurisdictions will allow a general-plan amendment to be filedonly once a year within a specific time period. Otherjurisdictions have no specific submittal date, and an applicationcan be filed at any time.

Public Hearings and/or Community Relations

The importance of establishing open lines of communication andan effective working relationship with a governmental agencycannot be overemphasized. With the complexities of governmentalregulations, the often conflicting overlap ordinances, and therapid pace of changing regulations, there is no substitute for ahands-on approach. The development team should have an organizedapproach to dealing with the agencies and designate someone whowill follow the project through the process and follow up withthe agency/staff person on outstanding issues.

Public hearings and/or community presentations require specialconsiderations. A simple, uncontested project may be handled witha brief presentation. More often than not, a project can take onadditional complexities just prior to the public hearing.Opposing groups or individuals frequently surface at the 11thhour.

The presenter of the project should be well versed in all theproject specifics. Detailed technical information can bepresented by project consultants, suchas traffic consultants, geologists, sign consultants, etc., butpresentations should stick to the issues and be brief, factualand to the point to convey the necessary information. Apresentation that goes beyond the issues can trigger new areas ofdiscussion that can get a hearing off track and headed in thewrong direction. Plus, you'll usually be notified in advance ifmore detail and a more extensive presentation is warranted.

Finally, anything that is offered as a concession orcompromise during a community presentation or public hearing willbe documented and become part of the project record. Therefore,it is of the utmost importance for the project managers to ensurethat the appropriate members of the project team receive noticeof any concessions given during public hearings.

In Conclusion

Research is anyone's best defense when it comes to theproject-approval process. Find out exactly what your localjurisdiction dictates and formulate a plan that is least likelyto come up against roadblocks.

The second best defense in the project-approval process is tomaintain a congenial attitude when working with anyone within thegovernmental agencies and neighborhood associations. It doesn'tpay to make enemies when you're trying to gain their approval.Just remember: You can't fight city hall. Go in with a winningattitude and you may just walk out with project approval.
Bruce Jordan is with Valli Architects Inc. of Capistrano,Calif. He may be reached at (714) 443-0011.

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