Communities, townships, cities, counties and neighbors all love self-storage, right? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. A senior city planner recently told me, “Self-storage is a pig, and we need to put as much lipstick on it as possible.” This negative perception can sometimes spill over into the policies jurisdictions adopt to manage storage development, making the process of project approval more challenging.
If you’re seeking to build a new facility, it’s helpful to understand the zoning process. To help ensure success, here are five steps to follow.
1. Understand the Rules of the Game
Understanding the rules with which you’re required to comply is critical in getting project approval. Zoning decisions are based on several documents, but it all starts with the community’s general plan, which identifies the values and goals that govern decision-making.
One section of the plan addresses land use. It includes a map identifying areas for certain types of uses such as residential, commercial and industrial. The zoning ordinance then provides information for the implementation of the land-use plan by defining zones, each of which includes items such as:
- Permitted uses
- Conditional uses
- Accessory uses
- Height restrictions
- Lot coverage
- Floor-area ratio
- Frontage requirements
- Open-space requirements
Detailed plans and overlay zones provide area-specific regulations. Historic preservation, hillside/slope ordinances, tree ordinances and architectural guidelines provide additional directive. Other rules might also apply such as those related to utilities, easements, wetlands, soil contamination, flood zones and CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions). The list goes on. This is all part of the jurisdiction’s “rulebook” for development.
It’s important to do your own research and read the fine print. Self-storage may be a permitted use in an area but with restrictions that are problematic for our industry. For example, there may be stipulations that a facility can’t be more than 5,000 square feet, on a major or minor arterial street, within half a mile of a major intersection or existing storage facility, or on the first floor of a mixed-use building. Conditional uses and approval processes are also filled with pitfalls, so do your homework and understand these rules of the game.
2. Plan Your Approach
Now that you have information about your site, it’s time to plan your approach. Start with a pre-application meeting, which is a great opportunity to talk to multiple city departments at once, gather comments and hear potential concerns. If there’s no official meeting, host an informal one by assembling as many key staff members as possible.
Next, identify the various approvals you need to move forward with your project. These might include:
- Site plan
- Community council
- Lot consolidation
- Wetland delineation
- Architectural-review board
- Zone changes
- Historic preservation
- Special-use permit
Identify approvals that are administrative and can be approved by city staff vs. those that are legislative and require a formal meeting or hearing. Then determine which approvals can be handled concurrently and assemble a schedule and budget to pursue them.
For example, you don’t want to have to postpone a scheduled hearing because you haven’t completed another critical step. Perhaps you first need a wetland-delineation verification, an approval letter from an easement holder that has a billboard or pipeline on your property, community-council approval or a will-serve letter from a utility company. Understanding all steps of the process and when they need to occur will save you time and money.
3. Identify Fatal Flaws
At this point, you’ll have an idea of some of the potential challenges you’re facing with your project. What constitutes a fatal flaw? An issue that’ll either prevent the project from being approved or financeable or one that alters the cost of the project to the point that it’s no longer accretive. Fatal flaws come in many shapes and sizes, including:
- Permit and impact fees
- Zoning interpretation
- Low water-system pressure for fire sprinklers
- Extensive design requirements
- Storm-water requirements
- Flood zones
- Topography of the site
- Construction costs
- Offsite improvements
- Neighbor opposition
Each project is different, so something that’s fatal for one might not be for another. However, it’s important to understand and accept when something becomes lethal, so you don’t continue to pursue a project that won’t be approved or no longer makes economic sense.
4. Assemble Your Team
Start by looking at the plan you’ve outlined and identify a list of consultants you’ll need. This might include engineers, an architect, land-use attorney and environmental consultant. Make a list of candidates in each discipline, send them information and discuss the project scope. Solicit proposals from two or three consultants in each field. Make your decision based on each person’s interest in the project, relevant experience, workload, schedule and price.
Certain members of the team should have local connections and others could be national or regional. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. For example, if you’ve identified storm water as a potential flaw, keep this in mind when selecting a civil engineer. It should be someone who has a great relationship with the local engineering department and experience with storm-water projects in the area.
Facility design is storage-specific, so a national or regional consultant might be the best choice for the structural engineering. Get and call references for those with whom you haven’t worked. Learn about about each reference’s experience and how well he thinks the consultant would fit with your project.
You also need to decide who’s going to lead the team. Will it be you, the land-use attorney, planner, engineer or architect? Set up a kick-off meeting to introduce all the team members and set dates for submittals, drafts of plan sets, etc. Work with people you like and who share your passion for the project. Success will depend heavily on the team you assemble.
5. Overcome Obstacles
Surmount challenges when they come. Notice I said when, not if. Most projects will face multiple obstacles and overcoming them is an important part of the entitlement process.
When faced with a hurdle, make sure you clearly understand the problem, and then consult with your team to determine potential solutions. Present these to the appropriate decision-makers—the more options the better. Just be careful to ensure the solutions you propose won’t become a fatal flaw. Throughout the entire process, communicate clearly and respectfully with the jurisdiction and your team.
Successful project entitlement requires that you understand the rules of the game, plan your approach, identify fatal flaws, assemble your team and overcome obstacles. These steps will help you navigate the often difficult entitlement process and put you on the path for project success.
Scott Wyckoff is a founding principal of Wasatch Storage Partners, a nationwide acquisition, development and operating company. He began his career in the self-storage industry as a vice president of development and construction for Extra Space Storage Inc., where he was instrumental in the company’s redevelopment and Certificate of Occupancy purchase programs. His background in the nationwide development of self-storage facilities is unique and provides insight into the zoning and approval process. To reach him, call 801.692.1474; visit www.wasatchstoragepartners.com.