September 1, 2003

5 Min Read
The Zoning Process

Zoning laws come into play in almost every real estate development project. Zoning laws and regulations are those that govern how a property can be used and developed. Local governments adopt zoning regulations to set development standards for properties within their jurisdictions. Development standards ensure that land is used for the common good and development can be guided by an orderly process. Generally, zoning is divided into categories: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational. The desirability of locating a self-storage project on a highly visible site has raised many new zoning issues.

Permitted vs. Conditional Use

A permitted use allows land use by right. No public hearings are required and, hence, a project can proceed straight to building permit with no public input. Be sure to meet all requirements of the zoning ordinance, such as setbacks, landscape requirements, building-coverage limitations and floor-area ratio (a ratio of land to gross building area). When a land use is permitted by the governing agency, politics dont enter the process. Compliance with the development standards is all that is required.

A Conditional Use

The majority of cities have placed self-storage in the zoning category of a conditionally permitted use. Eight out of 10 projects will fall into this category. When a land use is categorized as conditional, it is permitted subject to circumstances the governing agency may impose on the project to mitigate any potential impact.

Generally, a conditional use requires the filing of an application and a set of design drawings with the governing agency for approval. Initially, the design drawings are evaluated by the planning staff and a report is written and forwarded to the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing, take public input, hear the applicants presentation and then vote the project up or down. Politics can and do play a major role in obtaining a conditional use permit. Architecture, aesthetics, hours of operation, landscape and overall design also play a large role.

As homeowners associations, neighborhood groups and various political groups have learned how much clout they can bring to bear on local politics, the zoning process can be complex. In this situation, it is always a good idea to meet with these groups prior to any public hearing. The public will assume the worst in the absence of a carefully thought-out presentation by the project sponsor. Many neighborhood groups that started out negative on a particular selfstorage projecteven to the extent of circulating petitions against itcan be turned around when presented a well-executed design.

During the processing of a recent conditionaluse application, a petition with 90 signatures opposing the project surfaced before the Planning Commission hearing. But a Saturdaymorning presentation to the homeowners association turned the opposition into supporters.

Originally, when asked if they had seen the design drawing for the project, the group replied, No, we dont need to see it. All selfstorages are ugly. When presented with project renderings and an explanation of how the project had been designed to protect them, the negative response turned positive. The Planning Commission hearing was made considerably easier when those homeowners showed up to support the project enthusiastically. Even though the city was not in favor of the project given its high-profile location, 80-plus neighboring homeowners vocal support won the day. The project was approved unanimously.

Design Review

The design review is somewhat simpler in that the question of land use has already been answered. Design review is a process whereby the local jurisdiction will assess the design of a particular facility. Normally, it occurs when the land-use category (in this case, self-storage) is a permitted one, but the jurisdiction wants a say in the facility design. Usually, projects undergoing design review will be evaluated for architectural compatibility with surrounding properties, landscaping, project colors and overall aesthetics.

Zone Change

A change in zoning is referred to as rezoning. It often involves changing a parcel of land from one land-use classification to another (i.e., from residential to commercial). Zone changes usually involve public hearings that give the community and governmental agency a chance to voice their opinions.

Zone changes can be difficult. Again, it pays to meet with the surrounding neighborhoods before any public hearing. A rezoning application for self-storage should emphasize the positive attributes of the land use:

  • Self-storage generates low traffic and low crime.

  • Facilities are closed at night, with limited access.

  • Self-storage projects often bring enhanced security.

  • Facilities frequently have noise-reducing qualities, such as acoustical buffering from major boulevards, highways, etc.

Politics will play a role in any zone-change application. Competing interests of surrounding properties can also play a role. Generally, a rezone can be more difficult than a conditional use permit. From the publics vantage point, an applicant filing a rezone application is trying to change the rules others have to follow.

The subject of self-storage as land use is commonly misunderstood. All too often, a governing agency will lump self-storage in an industrial category usually reserved for manufacturing or warehousing; but the operational characteristics of the industry differ significantly from those categories. Self-storage has fewer employees, less traffic, less noise and, hence, much less impact. So, the first order of business is convincing the local planning department self-storage is not an industrial land use and, in fact, can be compatible in most zones.

A quick note: Rezoning should not be confused with a variance, which is a request to deviate from current zoning requirements. A variance is not a change in the zoning law but a waiver of a particular requirement.


In 20-plus years of processing conditional-use applications, the three rules I have learned are:

1) Never take no for an answer.
2) Do your homework.
3) Never take no for an answer.

Many highly successful self-storage projects would not have been built if a developer had stopped with the first negative reaction from a city planner. As self-storage had made its way from bare-bones boxes in industrial zones to sophisticated architectural edifices on the major boulevards, the zoning process has grown in complexity. The customers are out on the major roads and your self-storage project should be, too. When it comes to zoning, thorough homework, good design, effective communication and persistence is the recipe for success.

Bruce Jordan is president of San Clemente, Calif.-based Jordan Architects Inc., a fullservice architectural firm specializing in the design and entitlement of self-storage projects. For more information, call 949.388.8090 or e-mail [email protected].

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