Keeping Up With Self-Storage’s Evolution

07 July, 2020

In an industry currently valued at $38 billion and growing, there is continued demand for self-storage. Driven by factors ranging from consumer downsizing to increasing rates of urbanization, self-storage has shifted to an increasingly commercial and personal use.

As self-storage evolves, local development ordinances and codes are struggling to keep up, often making zoning approval one of the largest hurdles developers face. Understanding why this challenge exists and proactively addressing it up front may help developers strategize how to move forward on desirable sites despite the site’s lack of zoning code compliance.

Self-Storage and Zoning: What’s the Disconnect?

Typically, zoning hurdles for these types of projects stem from three major changes within the self-storage industry.

First, the desired location for self-storage facilities is changing. Historically, self-storage facilities were primarily permitted in warehouse or industrial zones, isolated and far from residential communities. Today, self-storage customers want to easily visit their belongings, creating a need for local facilities in close proximity to homes, and far from the industrial areas of the past.

Second, many municipal codes do not specifically address self-storage facilities. If a code does address self-storage facilities, these facilities are generally considered industrial or warehouse use. Because self-storage facilities are often used differently than industrial and warehouse space, they may be subject to overly conservative parking and infrastructure requirements that are not reasonable or necessary for the self-storage facility’s actual use and operation.

Lastly, self-storage zoning in many regions is commonly based on single-story, garage-type units, which do not resemble many of the new, mixed-use, multistory, climate-controlled facilities being built.

Taking Proactive Measures

Instead of shying away from sites faced with potentially challenging zoning hurdles, here are three ways developers can proactively address the challenges described above.

1. Assemble a local team that includes an attorney, civil engineer, and traffic engineer

Find local professionals. Assemble a land use attorney, civil engineer, and traffic engineer who have relationships with the local government staff and professionals, as well as experience on similar projects. Your team will likely perform an ordinance review to identify use restrictions and variance needs on the site, before your purchase.

A traffic engineer may be needed to evaluate zoning code obstacles associated with trips generated and required parking.

2. Take the temperature of the town and potentially educate the town on changing use

Ask your civil engineer to pull recently approved applications within the town to review the municipality’s threshold for variances. Then, meet with key stakeholders to understand their perspective on and knowledge of self-storage’s modern use.

Those acquainted with self-storage’s evolution may be more open to variance requests. For those who aren’t in the know, educate them on the use’s relatively small developmental impact as compared to the building size. This is a good opportunity to introduce some of your traffic engineer’s findings and statistics. For example, while the average 5,000 SF fast-food restaurant may generate 300 trips per hour, a self-storage facility would need to be roughly one million SF to generate that much traffic. Educating the municipality on self-storage and, in particular, the traffic impact, may go a long way to securing the necessary variances down the road.

3. Identify the best course of action

Together with your land use attorney, determine the best way to proceed with approvals based on your sit-down with local officials. This could include applying for use variance/zoning relief, in which the zoning board grants a waiver specific to your property. Or it could mean amending the ordinance through the town council or similar governing body by requesting a zoning change. As a permanent change to the code and zoning map, this must be approved by the highest level of local officials.

Additionally, there may be other options depending on your geographic region. In New Jersey, for example, there are additional courses of action including submitting a bifurcated application, obtaining a redevelopment plan, or amending a master plan.

Work with your local land use attorney to identify the best options for your site.

Struggling with zoning hurdles? Contact Bohler’s self-storage experts today. We understand the self-storage industry’s evolution and can address it, creating opportunities to bring your project to life.

About Tung-To Lam, PE
Tung-To Lam Bohler Associate

As Associate in Bohler’s Warren, NJ office, Tung-To leads a team of site civil engineering professionals who help owners and developers act on opportunities to accomplish their most ambitious land development goals. With experience managing projects across all commercial, industrial, and residential markets, Tung-To leverages creative design solutions and strategizes entitlements to keep projects moving forward. Throughout his career, Tung-To has acquired intimate knowledge of many New Jersey agencies’ complex design, permitting, and approval processes.

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