Finding the Critical Zoning Information You Need Before Starting a Self-Storage Development: A Step-by-Step Process

Whether you already own a piece of land or have your eye on one, before you can develop a self-storage facility on it, you need to make sure it has the proper zoning and can receive the necessary approvals. Finding the initial information you need from the municipality can be complicated, though. These steps should help.

David Baca, Principal

June 11, 2024

7 Min Read

According to Wikipedia, zoning is “a method in which a municipality or other tier of government divides land into ‘zones,’ each of which has a set of regulations for new development that differs from other zones.” Though these requirements are most often regulated by towns and cities, they can also be applied to unincorporated counties.

If you’re looking to build a self-storage facility, it’s imperative to understand the local zoning laws. Whether you already own a parcel or have your eyes on one, you’ll need to confirm that it has the proper zoning, make the right requests if it doesn’t, and jump through other hoops to earn approval. It’s a process that can be complicated and frustrating, so let’s break down the steps.

The goal is to make sure you cover all the appropriate bases before you invest anything into self-storage design. This will minimize the soft costs in case your parcel doesn’t ultimately work for your project.

Step 1: Confirm Who’s Boss

The first step as you embark on your development journey is to determine what zoning is already in place for the parcel of interest, and that begins with knowing who’s really in charge of it. It’s good practice to check with county or state officials to make sure you’re dealing with the right authority. For example, I’ve sometimes discovered through simple phone calls that a project I was working on was actually under the jurisdiction of the county rather than the city, or that it was in a “special zoning district.”

Step 2: Confirm the Zoning

Once you know who oversees the zoning for your parcel, it’s time to visit their website and see what you can learn about the local zoning ordinance or unified development code. Jurisdictions produce a map that should show what zoning is in place for your chosen location. Many larger or more affluent municipalities will even have sophisticated, interactive maps that make this process fun. I can spend hours perusing this tool!

After you find your prospective development site on the map, you’ll be able to verify its zoning and can find out everything you need to know about how to develop that piece of land. You can either go directly to the section in the zoning ordinance that outlines your particular zone, or you can look for a table that gives you full view of all zones and the regulations for each.

Step 3: Verify Whether Storage Is Permitted

Next, verify that you can develop your site as self-storage “by right,” meaning it’s an accepted use in that zone. Unless the area is zoned industrial, light industrial or light manufacturing, storage might not be permitted. If this is the case, you’re at the end of the road for that parcel. However, if it’s allowed with a special-use permit, you might still be able to move forward. That’s a separate process.

Step 4: Reach Out to City Officials

If self-storage is an accepted use by right or through a special-use permit, your next step will be to meet with city officials to discuss whether they’d be open to putting your project at that specific location. Your goal is to assess whether they’ll support the development before you approach the zoning commission or city council. You’re more likely to receive approval from those boards when backed by the planning department.

Step 5: Confirm the Building Criteria

If city planners are amenable to your self-storage development, you can move onto the next phase: reviewing all of the building parameters and restrictions. Generally, your net rentable square footage will be most affected by the following regulations, which are often incorporated into the zoning ordinance. Let’s look at each and how to comply with them.

Setbacks designate where the buildable area is for the actual structure(s) you want to build. They’re measured from the property boundaries or right-of-way and designated as front, rear and side. They’re for buildings only, not parking or paved areas.

Please note: Parcels that abut residential areas often have greater setbacks. Sometimes you have to look under special or supplemental regulations for these details, as the paragraphs regarding your specific zone often only show the base standards.

Maximum building coverage describes how much land area the building footprint can occupy. It’s usually listed as a percentage or ratio compared to the square footage of the lot. Building coverage doesn’t account for multiple stories. It only refers to the ground-floor area.

Floor-area ratio (FAR) is a calculation based on the total area of the building on all floors, including occupiable basements, compared to the overall area of the lot. The FAR can limit the number of stories you’re allowed to have to fewer than what the zoning ordinance permits simply based on the area of the footprint you choose for your structure.

Maximum building height and number of stories are often listed together, as they generally relate to each other; but sometimes only a maximum building height is given. This allows you to provide as many floors as you want as long as you don’t exceed that height. Also, verify whether vertical architectural elements are exempt from the height limitation, as steeples and tower elements might be.

Most often, definitions or instructions are provided within the ordinance to clarify how building height is determined, but every jurisdiction is different. Make sure you know how it’ll be measured, especially if you’re considering multi-story self-storage.

Some municipalities measure from the first floor while others do it from grade or ground level. Measuring from grade could be averaged or taken from the lowest points. Another potential limitation we’re increasingly seeing is building height being based on how far the structure is from adjacent residential property. These seemingly small details can become deal-breakers if there isn’t a clear understanding of how height will be calculated.

Maximum impervious cover describes all areas that are covered by building footprint including sidewalks, drives and parking. Basically, it’s any area that isn’t vegetation or mulch.

Landscape requirements are the inverse of maximum impervious cover. In your research, look for the percentage of the lot that must be set aside for landscaping. Also, keep an eye out for other regulations like landscape buffers along a right-of-way or yards, especially where the property abuts residential areas.

Parking requirements are usually found within the supplemental-regulations section of the zoning ordinance and listed by use. More sophisticated municipalities will include self-storage as a separate line item. The conditions are often reasonable, however, many cities haven’t updated their ordinance for this industry, so it’s lumped under “warehouse,” which usually requires more parking than is truly necessary.

I’ve used two approaches to successfully overcome this challenge. The first is to seek a variance on parking by using actual traffic data. This yields mixed results. An open discussion with the planning department should give you a feel for how difficult or easy it might be to get the variance you need. The other option is to get creative about where you paint parking spaces. For example, I’ve sometimes drawn them directly in front of drive-up units (outside of any fire lane), and haven’t had any city balk at that.

Time to Continue?

Increasingly, newer zoning ordinances or unified development codes are tending to simplify many of the above building criteria by focusing more on setbacks, maximum building heights, and parking and landscape requirements. The reasoning is that if you meet these specific conditions, then it doesn’t really matter what the maximum building coverage or FAR is, as meeting the more important criteria will typically resolve those issues.

The above steps will get you about 90% to where you need to be in determining the feasibility your self-storage development site. They’ll help you determine whether the parcel is worth the investment of more manpower and money to further strive for a formal review and approval.

David Baca is an architect and principal of Baca, a Sherman, Texas-based design firm. Over the past 15 years, he’s designed self-storage facilities ranging from rural, traditional, drive-up to more complex and architecturally sophisticated multi-story properties in urban settings. For more information, call 903.893.5800 or email [email protected]

About the Author(s)

David Baca

Principal, Baca

David Baca is an architect and principal of Baca, a Sherman, Texas-based design firm. Over the past 15 years, he’s designed self-storage facilities ranging from rural, traditional, drive-up to more complex and architecturally sophisticated multi-story properties in urban settings. For more information, call 903.893.5800.

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter
ISS is the most comprehensive source for self-storage news, feature stories, videos and more.

You May Also Like