Reshaping Opinions to Gain Zoning Approval for Your Next Self-Storage Project

Despite becoming a mainstream business over the last decade, self-storage still faces grumbles when presented before the zoning board in some jurisdictions. Let’s talk about the greatest obstacles and the keys to achieving project approval.

Jeffrey Turnbull, Broker in Charge

June 8, 2023

6 Min Read

I recently met with a municipal planner to discuss a proposed self-storage development. His immediate response was, “Oh, not another one of those. Can’t you at least build an office building or something on that site?” I responded that if lifestyle changes and the pandemic hadn’t driven a significant number of people to work from home, that might’ve been a viable option, but not now.

It seems that every municipality has tried to control the development of self-storage in recent years by creating burdensome special conditions, new zoning laws and even moratoriums on the use. This article examines why that has occurred, and how to work around it to get approval for your next project.

Why the Friction?

Self-storage is no longer an ugly duckling relegated to industrial parks. Over the years, as the product has become more essential, developers have managed to make their way into more desirable areas, including commercially zoned locations near big-box stores or shopping centers. It has also started to appear near multi-family dwellings, often as multi-story facilities. In short, it has become mainstream.

Still, a newly proposed self-storage development will normally be met with skepticism from city senior planners who still see it as a collection of ugly metal buildings, even though it’s often quite attractive today. And regardless of what a facility looks like, municipalities fear too many of one type of asset class in their area. Many towns also have a reasonable long-range land plan, and their planning staff attempt to keep development in line with that vision.

At some point over the last several years, a tipping point was reached, and self-storage development simply became too much for many cities. Articles routinely pop up in local news stating that such and such a hometown is becoming overrun with dollar stores, car washes and, yes, storage facilities!

So, the more common response from planners to a proposed self-storage project is “no,” even when the overall land plan and zoning code shows it’s approved by right but with special limitations or restrictions. In addition, most towns have expanded the approval process to include neighborhood meetings, a development-review approval, and several “readings” by not only planning and zoning staff, but the town or county council, depending on the location. In other words, many municipal staff members, elected officials and, of course, residents will have a say in many aspects of your project, including its location, shape, size, height, building orientation, architectural features and more.

Finally, some country and city councils have enacted restrictions on self-storage due to fear of overdevelopment. Their planning and zoning officials might react negatively to your proposed project and say something like:

  • Self-storage simply doesn’t fit within our vision of the area.

  • It doesn’t employ many people, and we really want more employee and retail-oriented (walkable) businesses.

  • Self-storage attracts crime, noise and added light pollution.

  • It requires a building that’s too tall or big.

  • We don’t want any more of these unsightly things in our town (my personal favorite).

Strategy 1: Educate

You job as an owner or developer is to point out the benefits of self-storage in general and your proposed project in particular. One of the things planning officials may gloss over is the fact that our facilities represent a modern and clean low-impact use with minimal traffic, crime and noise. Make sure they full grasp that. Here are some other points to ensure they understand:

  • Self-storage employs plenty of local people in the design, building, maintenance and administrative operation of a facility.

  • Depending on the design, it may help reduce the workload on the municipality with respect to zoning-code violations relating to parking additional vehicles, boats, RVs and other equipment or “things” in the yard of a residential neighborhood.

  • Building design and height issues can be minimized with architectural designs that’ll allow self-storage to blend with the local area.

  • Self-storage generates substantial tax revenue without affecting the requirement for additional police, fire, hospitals, schools, roads or other utilities. It should be promoted as a win for many towns!

Strategy 2: Persuade

The real challenge is getting the local planning and zoning department to “buy into” your use from the very beginning. You want them on your side. Typically, you’ll begin by scheduling an informal meeting to discuss your concept. Make sure you’re well prepared for this preliminary proceeding by familiarizing yourself with the local zoning codes and understanding the overall area plan for the area where your site is located.

A site sketch with a rendering of your self-storage development is a must at this point. It may even make sense to hire an attorney experienced in land-planning matters or a consulting group in addition to conferring with architects and civil engineers familiar with modern industry design. It’s your first impression that counts here, so if the meeting starts off on the wrong foot, it can be a long, uphill battle to reshape the planning-staff opinion of you as a developer and self-storage as a use. If you feel push-back, you might causally let these officials know of other less desirable uses that would be allowed on the parcel.

Often, these preliminary meetings work out great. One of my favorite responses from a local planning-staff member was, “Well, I can think of worse things on that site.” I knew he was on my side at that point.

Strategy 3: Compromise

At the end of the day, you may have to offer concessions to the planning staff to get the approval you need. These might include additional landscaping, larger setbacks, ornamental fencing, more architectural features, agreeing to limit access hours, or adding a retail component or “community activity room” to your buildings. You might even offer a desired community feature such as a dog park. In most cases, the cost-effective offer is additional landscaping. Carefully consider anything that gives away or restricts the land or changes the operating characteristics of the development.

Self-storage is now a dynamic, mainstream business. It’s a necessary part of many people’s lives and performs well financially, especially in commercial areas. Due to the industry’s success and growth, however, the resistance from municipalities will continue.

The best thing you can do is to get organized and be well-prepared to illustrate the benefits of self-storage to the local planning and zoning staff. Know the common objections and be ready to offer compromises if necessary. Finally, understand that the process to approval may be a lengthy but rewarding one.

Jeffrey B. Turnbull has been involved in the self-storage business as a developer, operator and owner for more than 25 years in the Charlotte, North Carolina, market. He’s a licensed attorney in the state, a licensed real estate broker in North and South Carolina, and a past president of the North Carolina Self Storage Association. He’s also a regular contributor to “Inside Self-Storage” and a speaker at various industry events. To reach him, e-mail [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Turnbull

Broker in Charge, Turnbull Commercial

Jeff Turnbull is the broker in charge at Turnbull Commercial, with more than 25 years of experience in developing and operating self-storage properties in the Charlotte, N.C., area. He’s a licensed attorney in the state and holds a real estate broker license in the both the Carolinas. Jeff recently sold his self-storage properties and now offers consulting and development services. He’s 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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