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Getting the Green Light: An Overview of the Self-Storage Zoning Process

Green Traffic Lights
When seeking zoning approval or rezoning to build a new self-storage facility or convert an existing building, there are several things you need to know about the process. Here’s an overview of how zoning has evolved, the general process, and steps you can take to get the green light for your next project.

By Jeffrey B. Turnbull

Most municipalities have adopted a land-use plan for regulating industrial, residential and commercial land uses, including self-storage. The zoning rules and regulations protect the rights of property owners, control growth in an orderly fashion, and serve to promote the general welfare of the community.

By dividing land into districts according to use—and setting regulations for these districts—a zoning ordinance can govern private land use and segregate incompatible uses. The purpose of zoning is to locate particular land uses where most appropriate. It considers public utilities, road access and the established development pattern.

If you’re seeking zoning approval to build a new self-storage facility or a rezoning to convert an existing building to a storage use, there are several things you need to know about the process. Following is an overview of how zoning has evolved, the general process, and steps you can take to get the green light for your next project.

A Change in Perception

Historically, most city land planners have assumed self-storage was best suited for land and buildings in the back of an industrial park or at the edge of the county in an unincorporated area. As demand for storage has grown over the years, so have the zoning laws and regulations that control its development. Thus, the tendency to locate self-storage in the middle of nowhere has changed dramatically.

Modern storage developments are generally architecturally pleasing, well-designed structures—single- or multi-story—in areas of high population density with an affluent customer base. The industry has come a long way, and self-storage is now a mainstream use, with most new projects resembling office or retail buildings.

In several cities, self-storage has been included in a limited way for mixed-use projects, requiring offices, restaurants, shops and even multi-family in a high-rise structure. At a recent rezoning hearing in my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., a council member said, “If we’re going to have self-storage, we might as well have it look nice.” In other words, it has become an accepted use, but obtaining the proper zoning continues to be a major undertaking. The process takes a good plan and teamwork.

The Process

Normally, a self-storage developer begins with a parcel of land or vacant commercial building in an area with strong demographics, decent access and visibility, and availability of all of the necessary utilities. Usually, there’s also a good chance of getting the property zoned for self-storage, if it isn’t already.

The self-storage use of a particular parcel may be permitted by right, or it may be conditional through a special-use permit, which is often required in many commercial districts. Or the property may require a full rezoning from residential or some other district.

When an owner wants to use his land in a way that isn’t permitted by the existing zoning, he must request to rezone the property to a classification or district that allows the desired use. Often the local planning staff will require a neighborhood meeting, followed by a formal zoning hearing a few weeks later. This is sometimes followed by a city council hearing.

Each step in the zoning process is important. Any change—either a special-use permit or a full rezoning—that requires approval by a municipality is a challenge the self-storage developer or owner must take seriously to achieve a successful result.

The Initial Meeting

First, meet informally with the planning staff to understand the local zoning process, rules and challenges ahead. You’ll get a sense of what may work and what to avoid in the site plan. Is the staff generally receptive to your project, or do they want the proverbial “pound of flesh” in terms of additional landscaping, buffer yards or architectural features? Are the local rules structured to prevent the type of development you require to earn a decent return on investment, or are they reasonable? You should have the feeling that you can indeed clear all of the zoning hurdles to move forward.

After that initial meeting, invest in a team of professionals to work on your development and help you prepare for the full zoning hearing. This team will most likely include an architect, attorney, civil engineer and land planner. It’s important that each of these contributors have some experience with self-storage and zoning issues.

The Neighborhood Meeting

The neighborhood meeting may serve as a good dress rehearsal for the formal zoning hearing. Some issues commonly raised by residents or nearby businesses include increased traffic, a fear of increased crime and a decrease in surrounding property values. Let everyone know self-storage is a low traffic generator, it won’t increase crime, and there’s ample evidence that a well-designed facility can actually increase property values in the neighborhood.

The Formal Hearing

The formal zoning hearing will allow you to present your case visually and discuss potential objections prior to any testimony in opposition. You’ll need a well-developed site plan and a basic architectural rendering. Be prepared to answer questions on the self-storage operation such as office and gate hours, traffic issues, possible light pollution, and landscaping and buffer yards. I prefer a short presentation using static, full-color graphic displays of the site plan.

State your zoning case clearly and succinctly. Ask for support from the governing body, whether it’s a planning board or city council. More often than not, you’ll be granted permission to proceed with your development.

Spend the time, effort and money to make a strong case at each and every step of the approval process. Take seriously every interaction with the city planning staff, community, planning board and city council. Try to address each and every concern about your self-storage project in a professional manner.

Remember, the people serving on the planning board and city council really do want to help you succeed, and most are business professionals just like you. With a sincere and professional attitude as well as a professional team and presentation, you’ll be well on your way to winning zoning approval for your self-storage development.

Jeffrey Turnbull is president of Kodiak Property Management Corp. He’s been involved in the self-storage business as a developer, operator and owner for more than 20 years and currently owns three stores in Charlotte, N.C. He’s a licensed attorney in North Carolina, a licensed real estate broker in North and South Carolina, and a past president of the North Carolina Self Storage Association. Mr. Turnbull is a regular contributor to “Inside Self-Storage” and a speaker at various industry events. To reach him, e-mail [email protected].

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