Identifying Competing Self-Storage in the Pipeline

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How to Talk to the Man:

Working with Planning, Zoning & Building Permit Agencies

Whether you are a self-storage consulting group or an individual researching your next project, we often need to contact local government to find out if there are any other projects in the works when writing your self-storage business plan. Because these agencies vary on a city level in both sophistication and responsiveness, this may prove to be a frustrating process. Here’s how to cut through the red tape.

Start online

Depending on the city, you may get lucky and strike gold on the first try with their website. Some are like Sacramento’s Development Tracker where it is easy to check out new developments under review. Other cities like Tacoma have used multiple systems over the years to save and process self-storage permit data, so you must search multiple websites to find all of the records.

Competitors with facilities in development that require zoning action may be on planning commission and city council websites. Be on the lookout for public hearings and legislative actions related to self-storage, which will definitely be found online. If their project did not need a zoning change or comprehensive planning amendment, or if they have passed that stage, the prospective self-storage competitor should be found by searching for permits on the building and safety website.

Talk to administrators the way they want to be talked to

Even if the information you need is online, you are going to have questions that can only be answered by a real person. According to Brian Will, staff planner with the city of Lincoln, “Calling is usually best. When you are ready to get started [with your self-storage business plan], that is when to come in and talk in person.” Other officials agree a combination of email and phone communication is easiest for them to manage.

Find the right person

“Keep calling until you get the right person,” advises Donald Moore, zoning supervisor with the city of Charlotte. “One person may not be able to tell you all of the ins and outs of a self-storage project.”

Titles and division of duties vary from city to city. From a competitive aspect, you want to know about applications in process and approved applications; zoning and land-use change applications; and building permits.

When Harry finds Sally

(Or vice versa) you are going to need to keep checking in with your contact as you proceed through the self-storage feasibility study and development process. Be sure to ask him/her how she prefers to be contacted, and if there is anything you can do to help him/her help you. It goes without saying that you catch more bees with honey, and being polite, organized and human goes a long way to a productive relationship.

Department representatives’ responsibilities differ like their titles from city to city. You may or may not get the same person every time you call while you are in the competitive research stage and throughout the feasibility process. For example, according to Shanta Frantz in land use and zoning for the city of Tacoma, “The planners rotate for customer service duty. However, once a self-storage proposal is submitted for a pre-application, land use and/or building permit review, a planner is assigned to that proposal.”

What officials wish you knew

“The better question you ask, the better answer you will get,” says Will. “The more thought you put into it, the better we can give useful information. A fair amount of the process is not black and white. We rely on good judgement and what the community deems important. If everyone does a little give and take, you will come out with most of what you want in the end. We are here to help you solve problems and serve the community.”

As you proceed with your self-storage business plan beyond the competitive analysis stage, Franz finds that, “The most challenging aspect of most development (I’m sure this is true for all cities) is that developers tend to know/understand the building code, but do not research the city’s land use code before narrowing down their site selections. This often leads to designs that were not prepared with the specific site in mind and/or the jurisdiction’s specific use, design, landscaping, on-site parking (passenger and loading spaces), pedestrian and bicycle support standards, critical areas review/permits, etc. Rather, we see a lot of ‘off-the shelf designs’ that then have to be substantially altered and/or land use applications need to be secured (which in turn takes time, application fees, and an appealable decision by the Director).”

With this in mind as you research self-storage projects in the works, review the land use code. While a pre-application meeting may not required for building permits and there may be a fee for pre-application services, this phase is what most developers use as their self-storage feasibility business planning phase, and it is well worth the time and fee to receive staff’s comments, direction and advice before submitting the necessary building permit application(s).