Zone Support | NACS Online – Magazine – Past Issues – 2015 – October 2015
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The Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing

Zone Support

Strategies for retailers seeking zoning approvals.

​The 152,000-plus convenience stores in the United States are part of the fabric of nearly every community across the country. But like many businesses these days, it is becoming increasingly difficult to expand operations. Many communities (mis)perceive convenience stores to
be a blight on their neighborhoods and actively work to prevent stores from opening nearby. Residents cite increased crime, public drunkenness and lower property values as some of a handful of rationales for their aversion to c-stores setting up shop.

In his 2006 doctoral dissertation, “The Effect of Proximity to Commercial Uses on Residential Prices,” Georgia State University student John Williams Matthews set out to determine if the proximity of neighborhood commercial development really does affect residential values.

Matthews described what’s known as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), a volatile situation that occurs when regulatory permission is sought at zoning approval hearings for commercial buildings. “Local homeowners make their claim of threatened property values, arguing that ‘everybody knows’ it is true. Local officials are confronted with difficult choices and little empirical information,” he wrote.

Summarizing his findings, Matthews found that the proximity to retail actually “creates a positive price effect for residences; the further from retail, the lower the residential price.” Although he cited one caveat: Commercial sites in very close proximity to residences—within 250 feet—can depress property values. Matthews suggested the use of “visual barriers” between retail and residential sites, but cautioned that such barriers “should not be created that sacrifice access from residential sites to retail. Loss of access will reduce convenience and negatively affect residential value.”

Convenience store operators are no strangers to the NIMBY rebellion that develops during zoning approval hearings for either new ground-up sites or remodels of older stores, and even the most beloved convenience store brands in the United States aren’t safeguarded against homeowner protests at these public forums.

“Increasingly, NIMBY concerns raised in zoning approval hearings have made the zoning approval process increasingly complex and difficult to navigate for retailers looking to remodel existing locations or add new locations,” said NACS Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Jeff Lenard earlier this year in announcing the NACS Site Approval Toolkit, which helps retailers develop strategies for zoning approvals. “While each approval process is admittedly unique, this toolkit will help retailers navigate the process in a more streamlined manner.”

The NACS Site Approval Toolkit (PDF) describes typical participants in the planning process and general “nuts and bolts” that comprise the framework of local planning. Each stage of the process is examined and broad strategies and ideas are provided to consider in the development of a site approval plan.

Here are the steps highlighted in the Site Approval Toolkit:

1. The Approval Process
Before preparing for the approval process, it’s important to understand how the process works— and the difference in terminologies for what is required. The first step is to review the land use and development guide (sometimes referred to as a “master plan”), the community’s policy document intended to help guide growth and development decisions.

A land use and development guide is not a rigid or static set of rules. Its objectives and recommendations are intended to allow flexibility in light of new information or opportunities. The guide is an attempt to record the basic, core community development values and principles that citizens share and to use them as guideposts in future decisions concerning growth, development and improvement in the community. It guides deliberations involving land development and land use regulations.

The bulk of the early stages of the process involve the zoning of the property itself. Zoning not only regulates where residential, business and industry can be located in communities; it also dictates density, land use intensity (commercial, manufacturing, industrial uses) and aesthetics (how dwellings or structures are placed on a lot, what the structures look like and whether trails, parks or open space requirements are appropriate). Before buying property, it is always beneficial to understand that property’s current zoning—and zoning and land use plans for the surrounding area.

2. Strategic Preparation
The planning process can be challenging for even the most successful businessperson or real estate professional, especially when working with local officials, politicians and citizen groups to obtain approval for new a development. Although the development process can be as simple as presenting the proper information to the planning commission staff or a zoning administrator, the potential for opposition or conflict is apparent.

To get a sense of the types of variances granted— and the types steadfastly denied—attend zoning meetings before the application is submitted. It helps to meet a few board members and begin the process of talking about the potential need to apply for a variance. Personal relationships, especially in small communities, are a plus. Make plans to meet the community and listen to neighbors, and identify and ask for support from third-party advocates and partners. Having others speak positively on behalf of the project and its merits is important to mitigating potential opposition and critics.

3. The Timeline
The strategic preparation process can take two to three months if things go well—and possibly longer if things do not. It is difficult to present a standard approval process timeline because all municipalities, even when complying with state guidelines, exert “home rule” exceptions to their own process. However, the following chart gives an approximate expectation of what one can expect in a normal to best-case scenario. In this example, the process can be expected to take from 60 to 90 days.

4. Checklists
Be sure to plan to address a number of community concerns that may be raised during the zoning approval process. For example:

The community’s growth plan and objectives: It’s important to research and understand a community’s growth and development plan and provide context for how the project meets those parameters. Many community development plans can be found at websites for the city, county or the respective civic leaders.

Trends in retail and commercial development: Retail development is moving away from large strip centers and toward village centers or mixed-use developments. Community planners also favor breaking up shopping centers to make room for detention ponds, fountains and other landscaping elements. A business’s willingness to harmonize design with the existing properties and integrate it into the neighborhood is critical.

5. Showcasing Business Values
Telling the story of what your company stands for and how it will be a valuable member of the local community is vital to the zoning process. It’s not always enough to run a great business that benefits to the community—the story has to be told in a compelling manner.

When considering a development project that will require public hearings, company leadership should be prepared to speak on the benefits that both the company—and the industry as a whole—can offer the community. In other words, don’t let the opposition define the project and the business.

Positive messaging can be created by developing a narrative around specific topics, such as how many years the company has operated in the community or area. Consider also sharing info on what local groups or causes the company supports (i.e., Little League teams, United Way, local food banks) as well as how many full- or part-time jobs will be created by the project. Discuss how the project will serve the needs of the community and customers and how the project fits within the community development plan. What positive impact will the project have on the local economy?

6. Post-Approval Strategies
Once the project is approved, a number of considerations should still be addressed to ensure that the new store is successful. The first step to take is to record lessons learned from the process. Examine what worked, and what didn’t work. Develop a plan for future approval processes based on these lessons learned.

Obtaining approval for any project, particularly a convenience store project, is more than having a superior offer, a beautiful building and the best intentions. The winning strategy is the one that focuses on building relationships, protecting property values and integrating the product offer and business into the community’s fabric. And while there is no fast-and-simple template for success, the information presented in the NACS Site Approval Toolkit can help guide your strategic thinking in terms of what tactics you need to take to enhance your likelihood of success.

By developing a strategy that holistically focuses on how you will serve the community’s interests, you will increase the likelihood of success in getting your project approved.