Turning Unconventional Sites to Your Advantage

02 May, 2023

As ideal sites vanish and costs rise, developers need to be increasingly strategic and creative. The good news? Unconventional sites may offer significant savings and location advantages to developers who remain active and know how to approach due diligence wisely.

How can developers bring a more critical eye and turn challenging conditions into opportunities when working with available sites?

Here’s what I recommend developers consider when conventional sites aren’t an option.

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Assess Red Flags Against Development Needs

When time or cost is an issue for developers, the following factors raise red flags:

  • Environmental issues: Floodplains, resource protection areas (RPAs), etc.
  • High utility impact fees, especially for residential development (although including affordable or age-restricted housing can mitigate these fees)
  • Limited access to utilities
  • Unfavorable political climates
  • Combative neighbors

These obstacles can be overcome if the developer is committed to moving forward despite interruptions. However, examining red flags through the lens of your development needs is imperative. For your project to be a win-win for the community and you, you must know where your limits are and where you’re willing to negotiate.

After all, very few sites will be zoned for your use, situated in an A+ location, offer perfect access, and include utilities suited to the property. So, determine where you can compromise, be clear about your must-haves, and be willing to allow more time for the permitting and entitlement processes in order to accomplish your goals. Also make sure you have the right team to tackle hurdles that arise.

Conduct In-Depth Due Diligence to Mitigate Risk

Performing quality due diligence is essential for ascertaining a project’s limits and for mitigating risk. This due diligence includes exploring issues such as utility availability and gauging county and community feedback.

Gregory Roth, Principal in Bohler’s Tampa, FL, office, agrees. “Reviewing an ALTA survey, Phase I Environmental report, and a due diligence report on zoning, stormwater, utilities, and the permitting process, enables you to make a more informed decision about whether or not to continue moving forward.”


Involve Partners to Find Sites that Work

Developers typically engage brokers or tap into industry connections to find the right site. But when conventional sites are scarce, leveraging relationships with jurisdictional staff, land development consulting companies, and other types of partners may speed up the process.


A jurisdiction excited about your project is an invaluable resource. Bohler has found that many jurisdictions want developers to build in their communities and know which areas are most advantageous. Reaching out directly with questions like, “Where do you recommend developing?” and “Do you know property owners who might be able to help?” often leads to success.

Developers who are flexible about prototypes and design standards in service of meeting the jurisdiction’s desires may also speed up a developer’s progress – and those who present the jurisdiction with options early on typically avoid costly changes later.


If you’re having difficulty making a site work, partnering with other developers proposing sites in the area is a smart approach. Working collaboratively to get projects approved can shorten the timeline, reduce costs, and enable you to tackle a challenging site without taking on too great of a burden alone.

Land Development Consultants

Engaging an experienced, locally based land development consulting company can greatly ease the process of connecting with partners who assist when the easy sites are gone. Make it a point to learn about nearby projects and make those connections in advance.

Design professionals often have knowledge regarding projects previously proposed on sites with potential that ultimately didn’t move forward.

— Katherine Roberts, Sr. Project Manager

Other Partners

Site civil engineers, geotechnical experts, and land use attorneys often know about opportunities in the area. This includes their knowledge regarding projects previously proposed on desirable sites – or sites with potential – that ultimately didn’t move forward.

As a result, these professionals often have ideas about what might work in a given location. They can pass on information about what was important to decision-makers in those jurisdictions.

Get Creative and Stay Flexible

Developers have many options when creating spaces and offering choices to fit the community and please the jurisdiction. Offering flexible spaces facilitates enjoyment, provides value, benefits the community, and ensures the area’s long-term needs are met, all while helping you achieve your goals at the same time.


For example, if retail isn’t a good fit for a residential development, you can short-term lease that space to tenants. Renting unused residential parking to the public or opening a space to the community for events such as a farmers’ market are also mutually beneficial solutions.

Planning to complement the surroundings is another creative and flexible, yet practical, approach to overcoming site challenges. Greg illustrates the point: “In places like Florida where stormwater requirements are rigorous, innovations like underground stormwater maximize the developable area. Developers can also make swaps with adjacent parcels to gain better site access or increase usable land area. Other creative options are off-site wetland mitigation or floodplain compensation.”

Another innovative approach is landscaping around parking lots. This can provide additional green space or amenities to the community, along with benefits like noise reduction and green infrastructure stormwater solutions.

In places where stormwater requirements are rigorous, developers can make swaps with adjacent parcels to increase usable land area.

— Greg Roth, Principal

RPAs provide further opportunities to make the best use of every space, even where developers can’t build. Jurisdictions often want to see RPAs cleaned up, invasive species removed, and the area replanted. If you’re able to do this, you may be able to call the location a “new forested area” in some jurisdictions. In Virginia, these types of activities are counted toward your stormwater management quality credits and reduce the cost of your stormwater management systems on-site.

For flexible developers who have the space, creative ideas like these are opportunities to save money while also bringing value to the community.

About Katherine Roberts, PE
Sr. Project Manager Katherine Roberts, PE

Katherine serves as Sr. Project Manager in Bohler’s Warrenton, VA, office. With her expertise in design and permitting for a wide range of public, residential, and mixed-use developments across Virginia, she has become an integral part of Bohler’s team.

Katherine’s passion lies in helping Bohler’s clients identify and act on opportunities to accomplish their development goals, even when easy sites are scarce. She believes that every project is a chance to make a positive impact on the community and is dedicated to delivering high-quality results that exceed her clients’ expectations.

Apart from her work, Katherine is also responsible for managing Bohler’s internal training program for technical staff. She is an active member of Bohler’s Women’s Professional Network and was handpicked to participate in the RISE program, which identifies promising future leaders for the firm.

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