By Gregory Boler
Regardless of location, real estate developers must overcome a series of challenges before the first shovel hits the ground. The most significant obstacles involve securing the necessary entitlements such as zoning, land-use, and permitting, which requires local government approval on behalf of those who will be most affected by the construction process: residents.
Obtaining approval is often the lengthiest part of the overall real estate development timeline. Therefore, winning buy-in from the public and its representatives early in the process can ensure that the project will be mutually beneficial to the developer and the area it will serve. It will also save the developer valuable time and money.
Indeed, conducting detailed due diligence sets our projects up for success. Even before the proposal of a project, we engage several experts and do thorough research on the area, its residents, and its history. The goal is to learn if our development is the right fit for the community. There will always be government agencies that will conduct a preliminary site plan and technical review approval. That team is in place to ensure the project’s safety and sensibility, as well as confirm if the design meets the required local codes and ordinances. In addition to the heavy lifting of the developer and civil engineer, a land-use attorney is typically necessary, especially if rezoning is a factor, to guide the team through the process and meetings with public officials.
During the due diligence and entitlement process, we are prepared to meet with local officials to receive their feedback on the real estate development strategy and to gauge whether they would support the project. The next step is informing the public in a welcoming setting with plenty of visuals and renderings. In instances where rezoning or conditional use approvals are needed, we meet with a zoning advisory group to bring up drawbacks and consider their proposals. Once plans are finalized, the future of the project is in the hands of the decision-making jurisdiction. The goal in all scenarios with the public and their representatives is to obtain a win-win solution for all parties.
As a recent example, we sought rezoning variance for a light industrial project in Georgia in spring 2019. The district was historically an industrial/warehouse area that evolved into residential over time. Most of the warehouses that remained were outdated and not aesthetically pleasing, and residents and county leadership alike were against new light industrial construction. We had identified the site for a potential heavy industrial project, which is what the site was zoned for; however, “Warehousing” was changed from a permitted use underneath this zoning to a conditional use.
At that time, the parcel was a desolate concrete pre-stress plant that had not been operating for almost a decade. Our task then was to get conditional use approval for warehousing from the County District Commissioners. With new commissioners voted into office earlier that year, we had the opportunity to present the benefits of our real estate development and listen to and address the public’s concerns. We presented our warehouse project as one that would attract last-mile e-commerce users, create jobs, increase tax revenue, and benefit local consumers and online shoppers. We also created a site plan design that was the most compatible for the nearby residents, as it increased safety, reduced noise and light pollution, and upgraded overall aesthetics. Ultimately, we obtained public buy-in and proceeded with a project that will make a world of difference for the community.
As evidenced in that example, the four most common concerns we face from stakeholders and constituents are traffic, stormwater, noise pollution, and light pollution caused by the construction site and building lights. We tackle potential traffic issues in advance by having a traffic engineer conduct studies and suggest the best ways to promote the safety of the public and truck drivers, whether by installing a traffic light, sidewalks, or extra turn lanes. The civil engineer addresses stormwater concerns by ensuring all aspects of planning and zoning meet local code requirement. As far as noise and light pollution, there are several ways to make the site less disturbing. We can muffle the sound of trucks by adding a sound barrier such as trees, a sound wall, or a hill, and use light strategically through motion-sensor lighting or light poles directed away from residences.
Perhaps more important than addressing concerns about industrial construction and its operation is bringing to light the benefits of it. Warehouses have evolved dramatically over the past few decades and can be just as aesthetically pleasing and fiscally positive as other commercial real estate development. In some instances, the outparcels of industrial developments have practical uses such as gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, or any other amenity that a tenant might want for their employees. In addition to achieving a successful economic development, our goal is to build something the public will view as an asset to the community in perpetuity.
Gregory Boler serves as Vice President in the National Logistics Group at Transwestern Development Company, where he sources and oversees industrial development projects throughout the Eastern U.S.