Most of you have probably heard of the old yet still dreaded NIMBY groups (Not In My Backyard). Several years ago, a good friend of mine identified another, more ominous species: CAVE groups, or Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
Over his many years as a self-storage developer, with a lot of successful zoning-change notches in his belt, my friend came to realize that most of the really upset residents at public hearings are so because, when it comes right down to it, they don’t want anything new built in their neighborhood. They aren’t fighting against the development of a self-storage facility, they’re fighting against change.
This is an essential piece of knowledge to have when it comes to new self-storage construction. If you adjust your approach based on this public mindset, you’re starting ahead in the game.
However, it’s only the beginning. If you think a zoning change is just a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy, and that the outcome will be based on laws, ordinances and common sense, you need to back up and regroup. Believe me, common sense is usually not part of the mix. Realizing that you’re dealing with politics and egos, you have your second critical understanding of the process.
Understanding P&Z Boards
In most cases, those serving on planning and zoning boards or commissions fall into one of these categories:
- They want to become politicians at some point and see this position as a stepping stone, a way to get in the public eye and prove themselves.
- They see the position as big-time politics and a way to demonstrate their incredible power.
- They get beat up at home and work, and this is a chance for them to exert some “control.”
- They’ve been thwarted by “the system” at some time, and worked their way on to the commission to “get things straightened out.”
- They’re actually qualified and really concerned about the development of the community.
Now that you know who you’re working with―or, more often, against―let’s start building your team. The key to your success is to identify and recruit “The Guy.” Every city, town, village, county or municipality has one. He’s usually a civil or professional engineer, and he and his firm do the majority of the design and engineering for the city’s road work, streets, bridges and other such public works. He has his own parking place at city hall, and he knows everyone in planning and zoning, permitting, building inspections, and utilities by first name.
How do you find The Guy? Simple, he presents the vast majority of zoning changes to the board or committee at public hearings. So do your homework, attend as many public hearings and meetings as you can, and learn the personalities of all the players involved. The Guy may be a “tool,” but he’s the most important one in the box. And it’s not only important to have the right tools, but to know how to use them.
Putting Your Tools to Work
Now that you’re armed with all this information, let’s put it to work. Step one: meet with The Guy. Invite him out for coffee, a meal, or a weekend in Vegas depending on the size of the project. (I’m kidding on that last one.) Sit down with him and be completely upfront. Tell him exactly what you’re trying to get done and where.
Ask him straight out, “What is your opinion on getting the zoning or re-zoning I’m looking for?” If he says there’s a good chance or “no problem,” negotiate a fair price for him to handle your case, and then support him with everything he needs―but stay out of his way. If he says “maybe” or “definitely not,” you may want to reconsider the cost and effort of moving forward with the proposed project.
Once you have The Guy on board and he starts the ball rolling, here’s the essential but often skipped step two: Most municipalities require that your request be advertised in all local newspapers, usually at least three times over a specified period.
In these advertisements, as well as on the signage required to be physically posted on the building or site, will be the date, time and location for a public hearing regarding the request. Anyone who supports or opposes the change is required to do so in writing and with the proper authority. These comments are public record and available for anyone, including you, to review.
If there is opposition to your project, you can head it off in advance of the city’s public hearing by scheduling your own “town hall” meeting at a coffee shop or restaurant in your proposed project’s neighborhood. Distribute fliers announcing the meeting in the entire area affected by your request for zoning change.
If there’s any formal opposition filed against your request, try to visit these residents in person, or at least by phone. It’s important not to argue or even debate with these people about your project; just politely introduce yourself and invite them to your town-hall meeting.
For the meeting, have your ducks in row. Display a nice, colored rendering of your proposed facility, highlighting features such as landscaping, security, the façade, etc. Point out that self-storage has low traffic flow, that it’s well-lit and secure. Tell them there will be no “junk” or vehicles stored anywhere outside the units.
Also, affably explain to those in attendance what type of businesses could be built on this site without their input under the current zoning. Explain that you’ll allow local law enforcement and perhaps a local charitable organization to store for free at this facility. Bottom line: Show them what a great neighbor you’re going to be.
Usually, you’ll find that few of those who filed opposition will show up at the town-hall meeting, and even fewer of those will appear at the public hearing in opposition. This puts you in a power position at the hearing. If any resistance is voiced, you can ask, “Were you at the town-hall meeting we held in your neighborhood? If so, did you voice this concern at that time?” While there may still be some public opposition, you have done everything possible to take the wind out of dissenters’ sails, and the board members will take notice.
Winning Over the Board
Placating the neighbors isn’t your only task, however. You also must win over the board members, some of whom may be opposed to your project. The best thing to do is let your hired expert—The Guy—explain why your facility is right for the community.
Because you’re emotionally attached to this project and have a stake in the outcome, let those who do this day in and day out speak for you. Do you need to be present? Definitely, but maybe it’s best not to say a word. As The Guy has told me more than once, “Sit down and shut up. I’ll handle this!” This is a long and arduous process, and once your request is vetoed, it’s difficult to change minds. If your project is denied, the process starts over from the top.
Some developers say, “I’m just going to let my attorney handle it, and he’ll show ’em.” Your attorney may be one of the best, a great guy and a good friend. But remember what attorneys do: They argue, and this is no time for that. A good argument may be just what the zoning czars are waiting for, and the excuse they need to shoot down your project.
What my wise friend the developer taught me is: You have to do everything you can to make sure your request is approved before the public hearing ever starts. It could mean the difference between a planning and zoning board that’s on your side and one that denies your self-storage project.
L. Bruce McCardle is vice president of eastern division operations for Mako Steel Inc. Based in Carlsbad, Calif., Mako designs, supplies and installs steel buildings for the self-storage industry, including boat/RV storage, multi-story and custom buildings. For more information, call 800.383.4932; visit www.makosteel.com.