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Successful Hoop-Jumping in Self-Storage Development: The Project-Approval Process

Every self-storage development has its challenges, but few are as aggravating as the zoning process. Learn what to expect when dealing with your city and steps to take to win project approval.

Whether you’re developing your first self-storage facility or your 10th, you’ll face challenges along the way; but none will give you more stress or “character” than getting government approval to build. What’s officially known as the land-entitlement or land-use permit process is long and complex. Worse, it differs by jurisdiction as well as by parcel.

Most easy-to-approve sites have long since been built on, so it’s more difficult to find viable locations—difficult, but not impossible. There are still parcels on well-traveled roads, within retail sectors, with plenty of nearby population and no competition. The problem is the self-storage industry is now under increased scrutiny by planning departments, which tend to add additional hoops through which developers have to jump. If you do find a desirable location, chances are the zoning won’t be correct for self-storage, and you’ll have to pursue a zoning change or conditional-use permit.

Let’s take a closer look at the overall zoning process and some steps you can take to get through those hoops and win approval.

Know the Battlefield

One of your first steps is to determine which zoning types in your target area allow self-storage construction. This is easier said than done. You’ll have to look at the zoning documents for each township you’re considering and find those that include “self-storage,” “mini-warehouse” or “mini storage.” If you plan to include outdoor vehicle parking, that’s an additional site use you’ll have to research. The good news is much of this can be done online. Another option is to visit city hall and ask the planning department to identify which zoning classifications are applicable for your project.

Once you know which classifications are suitable, you’ll need to review a community zoning map to determine where these designated land areas are. You should be able see if the township has broken self-storage into multiple categories. For example, some jurisdictions, such as Topeka, Kan., specify which zoning types require special or conditional approval in addition to zones where self-storage is considered a “use by right.” The city happens to be progressive because it allows self-storage in multiple commercial zones. If you were researching, you’d see it requires conditional approval for self-storage in C-2, which is normally harder to achieve than in C-3 or C-4, which need only “S-Special” approval.

Essentially, zoning classifications provide municipalities with flexibility, allowing them to approve a site if it makes sense for the township while applying brakes on other development. It also gives them time to decide if they’ll allow a project to proceed. “Use by right” zones are almost nonexistent these days. Officials want development projects to be conditionally approved so they can assert government authority. What this means for developers is there’s a chance your project will be approved, but certainly no guarantee.

Conditional restrictions in commercial zones might mean, for example, that you can’t have any outside unit access, meaning your roll-up doors must be inside a building. Some townships won’t allow traditional, drive-up units or any outside vehicle storage. If you decide to submit a proposal, comply with the city’s restrictions in all plans, from the outset. This’ll increase your chances for approval, though you may still have to haggle.

Use a Team Effort

Don’t assume it’ll be easy to get conditional or special approvals. You have to make a game plan. Assemble and work with your project team. Many towns have folks who specialize in getting projects approved. They may be architects, land-planning lawyers or even retired city engineers. Your team should also include a mitigation specialist, if your site has wetlands, and a site engineer who’ll be responsible for complying with all grading issues and surveying needs. This person will also help hire a soil engineer and any other experts who focus on environmental-impact issues.

Finally, you may need a landscape architect. In all my dealings with townships, you’ll likely have at least one or two board members who’ll be keenly knowledgeable and interested in your landscaping plan. Some cities have approval requirements for the types and size of trees. There may also be a point system for the number of bushes and/or trees required. Never take this aspect lightly. Combined with the exterior design of your building, these requirements may be the difference between approval or rejection.

Prepare to Comply

City officials have placed an increased emphasis on ensuring all developments represent the “visual character of the community.” There are hundreds of examples of nicely designed, modern self-storage structures that look as appealing as any strip mall or other new construction. Your architect/engineer will need to work with you and the city directly to ensure your design meets its standards for aesthetics.

Most cities have a list of architectural features they want in a new project. Study these and make sure you’re hitting all the attributes. For example, if city code requires at least three different architectural features on all exterior walls, put those in your design before you ever go in front of the board.

When presenting a project, I’ve read aloud a city’s rules on building exteriors to officials and then demonstrated how I was complying with every single one. In one instance, a board member commented that no one had ever done that before, and it helped him better understand my project and what I was doing to conform.

It’s smart to put your best foot forward and not create any bad will with the planning department. Inevitably, planners will ask for more than you want to consider at first, but if these concessions ensure project approval, they might be worth considering. I’ve seen applicants become so frustrated by the process that they’ll agree to anything planners want just to move forward. This approach will result in escalating costs, so the trick is a “bend but don’t break” approach.

Another reason to understand and comply with municipal requirements early in the process is so you can base your go or no-go decision on accurate costs. Review architectural requirements with your building supplier, as this may help you to find the most cost-effective ways to comply. If you’re required to get a conditional permit for construction, understanding requirements and options up front is an absolute must.

Expect to Spend and Wait

All this costs a lot of money, with absolutely no guarantee that you’ll earn approval for your self-storage development. Most officials will want all your plans complete before they’ll render a judgment. It isn’t unusual to spend $25,000 to $150,000 just to get your project to the final approval stage. Keep in mind, this is money spent out of pocket, prior to financing. Lenders won’t typically provide support until after approvals are obtained.

The timeline will also be longer than you expect. It’s normal for conditional approvals to take a minimum of six months or as long as a couple of years, depending how quickly you’re able to get necessary items in order.

Have Answers Ready

When the time comes to present in front of the planning board, be prepared to address the typical concerns planners have around self-storage. Many of these public apprehensions are myths, but you’ll need to be ready to deflect each item as it’s raised. The short list of common municipal concerns includes:

  • Self-storage design isn’t attractive.
  • The business will generate high traffic counts.
  • Storage facilities are magnets for crime.
  • Self-storage lowers surrounding property values, so facilities shouldn’t be near residential zones.

It’s important to address these in upfront and practice your answers. I recommend preparing a PowerPoint presentation that discusses and dispels these issues. Showing photographs and drawings in a simple, visual format leads to a better understanding between you and board members. Looking at your site from the city’s perspective will improve your chances of success.

Jamie Lindau is a self-storage owner and the national sales manager at Trachte Buildings Systems, which designs, manufactures and erects a full line of pre-engineered and customized steel self-storage systems, including single- and multi-story, portable storage, interior partition and corridor, and canopy boat/RV. He presents Trachte’s free “Building Blocks of Self-Storage” seminar in more than a dozen cities throughout North America every year. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit

TAGS: Development
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