The Zoning Campaign

November 11, 2014

As seen on the Wyatt Real Estate & Construction Law blog, The Dirt:

By Mary Lauren Teague

When attempting to rezone property, it is important to become acquainted with your surroundings. An effort to rezone a piece of property is, in many ways, like a political campaign, requiring equal amounts of field work, research, public relations and addressing constituent concerns. What follows are five important tips for getting property rezoned for commercial development.

Get to Know the Geography

Before doing anything else, get to know the land. If the subject property is located within a city or county in which you are unfamiliar, drive there and spend some time exploring. If you know someone who lives in the area of the subject property, ask them to show you around the area in an effort to understand how the particular parcel fits in with the surrounding community. For example, if you are attempting to rezone a vacant lot from residential to commercial, and the subject lot is surrounded by other residential zones, understand how a potential commercial rezoning might impact the area, and if the location makes sense for the goals you are trying to accomplish with your project. Understanding the “lay of the land” is critical.

Brush up on the History

Has the subject property been rezoned in the past? Has someone applied for a rezoning of the subject property in the past? Did the rezoning attempt pass or was it denied? If it was denied, what were the reasons for the denial? Contacting local zoning officials and requesting minutes, notes, tapes, records, etc. from prior attempted rezonings for the subject property will prove invaluable. If someone else has already encountered the challenges related to rezoning for the particular property, learn from those challenges before you launch your campaign.

“All politics is local”: Get to Know the Decision Makers

Familiarize yourself with the form and structure of the municipal government where you are seeking rezoning. Learn who the key decision makers are and make an effort to meet them, if possible. If there is a local economic development official or board, get them behind your project as early as possible. Research the members of the planning commission and the board of zoning appeals. These people control your destiny. Reach out to the individual planning commissioners and elected officials to set up meetings with them individually before the official city meetings take place. Tell them about your plans to obtain a rezoning of the subject property and ask them for their thoughts. Follow up with hand-written individual thank-you notes after the meeting, addressing their specific comments. Do not underestimate the power of a one-on-one, face-to-face meeting. If you have a commercial project in mind, provide the city officials with a copy of your site plan and any supporting materials at the meetings.

Know thy Neighbors

Understand how a rezoning would affect those who live and work nearby the subject property. You will likely be required to notify all individuals owning property in the surrounding area of your rezoning plans, so take the time to talk to these individuals if they show up at the planning commission or other city meetings. Consider holding neighborhood meetings to educate the constituents on your project development. If they have specific concerns, address their concerns in a polite and respectful manner. Send a hand written letter after meeting with neighbors and acknowledge their specific concerns in the letter. “Not in my backyard” is a strong hurdle, and you may never gain the support of the neighbors surrounding your proposed project, but you may gain their respect, which could count for a lot in the eyes of the decision makers.

Listen to the People

Understand the concerns of the city officials and any demonstrators who may appear at city meetings. For example, if they are concerned about the additional traffic that your planned project on the subject property will cause, use traffic studies to demonstrate that the traffic impact will be minor. Pay attention to specific concerns of each city official – every person is different, and they all have unique constituencies and individual concerns. If the mayor is concerned about crime increasing as a result of your proposed gas station on a vacant lot in the middle of a subdivision, use statistics from other similar endeavors to show that crime has not increased, and that the community will embrace your operation’s outside picnic areas as a communal gathering place. It sounds silly, but taking into account every person’s opinion, when reasonable, will carry you far in your effort to obtain a rezoning.