Carlos Vizcarra, president of AMERCO Real Estate Company (U-Haul International), Phoenix, AZ

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There’s no denying that self-storage is a customer-centric business. Storage owners and operators go to great lengths to hire and retain friendly facility managers who can rent units and keep properties in tip-top shape while seeing that customers’ needs are met with both professionalism and congeniality. What’s more, many self-storage sites now offer a plethora of amenities, unit sizes, and security features to better serve customers. But, is it possible for your storage facility’s location and physical characteristics to be convenient for every potential tenant?

Of course, as the saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Nevertheless, self-storage developers, owners, and operators should be doing all that they can to ensure that the majority of customers can easily access their properties, especially to meet the requirements of the law. This can be achieved through ADA compliance and building on conveniently located sites within commercial retail or residential zones.

Getting Into Compliance
Unfortunately, despite best efforts to provide proper accommodations, according to Carlos Vizcarra, president of AMERCO Real Estate Company, the wholly owned real estate subsidiary of the U-Haul System, all businesses—including self-storage—are at risk for ADA-related lawsuits. “The ADA is being abused,” he says. “The ADA goal should be about bringing businesses into compliance with the law and not about unscrupulous attorneys and clients making money through out-of-court settlements and lawsuits.”

Vizcarra goes on to say that most of the ADA violations he’s seen are for parking lot infringements. “Serial lawsuits are running rampant,” he says. “These claimants are not customers but individuals simply driving through the parking lots looking for a violation.”

In fact, U-Haul received a complaint for a parking lot violation before one of its facilities was even open for business. The company had purchased a former Home Depot in Phoenix, Ariz., and the complaint was filed within a few days after the acquisition. It also had an issue in Houston with a claimant who, despite a settlement agreement that prohibited a repeat claim, filed complaints two consecutive years. 

“U-Haul makes every effort to be in compliance with ADA laws in the design and construction of new U-Haul stores and in existing facilities when readily achievable,” says Vizcarra, who adds that U-Haul takes accessibility seriously. They ensure that wheelchairs can be easily maneuvered in the office/retail areas by placing stacks of boxes far enough apart for customers to pass through. U-Haul also has ADA counters in place to enable seated patrons to reach the retail goods.  

Vizcarra recommends that developers, owners, and operators become more familiar with the ADA standards. While a complete list of requirements can be found at www.ADA.gov, seeking the advice of an access specialist may be worth the money, especially if your facility is located in an area where numerous businesses have been receiving complaints.

Since parking lots have been the hot spot, Vizcarra reminds owners and operators to evaluate their exteriors. To avoid an ADA parking violation, be sure to have the required number of disabled spaces with the correct signage and blue painted markings. Those parking spots should also have the correct amount of space between the spots (to allow disabled customers to exit/enter their vehicles) and the shortest travel distance to the office. In addition, it may be necessary to install ramps or widen doorways.

As for the rest of the facility, Vizcarra advises storage operators to set aside one unit of each size on the ground floor for disabled renters. However, keep in mind that five percent of units must be handicap accessible for facilities with less than 200 units; facilities with more than 200 units must have 10 units plus two percent of the total units available. These units should have well maintained roll-up doors with pull cords and appropriate signage. Last but not least, public restrooms must provide handicap accessible toilets, sinks, stalls with handrails, paper towel and soap dispensers, and mirrors.

Above all, be aware that details of the ADA matter as some violations have been for simply having signage and mirrors displayed at the wrong height. Considering that a single non-compliance violation can cost a facility up to $4,000, it’s best to measure twice.   

Zoning Code Quandaries
While ADA compliance could be considered mandatory customer convenience, having storage facilities within retail or residential areas has become an expected—and sought after—convenience. Most customers wish to store their belongings within three miles of their homes, but providing customers with conveniently located storage sites is becoming more and more of a challenge thanks to archaic zoning codes.

“Zoning code has not kept up with the evolving self-storage industry,” says Vizcarra. “Sites that are typically zoned for self-storage by cities are in industrial and warehouse areas. The storage customer, on the other hand, expects a conveniently located self-storage facility with top amenities in commercial retail or residential zones easily accessible to their residences. Warehouse and industrial areas are not convenient to the household storage customer. So, for most storage developers, zoning is the biggest hurdle in development.”

Regrettably, there are plenty of cities that do not welcome self-storage with open arms. As a matter of fact, Vizcarra recalls one city council member who claimed the community had enough self-storage.

“Cities and counties have gone far beyond their power to regulate land use,” he adds. “Cities employ the conditional use and special use permit process to impose onerous conditions on the development of self-storage; these conditions include screening, landscaping, and architectural design. Even in zones that allow self-storage, cities use the site plan approval process to further control and regulate the development of self-storage. All of these measures create significant barriers to entry to the self-storage developer. Many cities have also gone as far as removing self-storage as a use from the zoning code or establishing a moratorium on new storage construction. In an open market society, cities should not attempt to limit business volume of any type.”   

Vizcarra, who is adamant that residents—not cities—should determine what products and services are permitted, states that self-storage is a necessary service that belongs in neighborhoods to assist with increased mobility, better jobs, and better living conditions. His sentiment is justified by the fact that 60 percent of self-storage customers nowadays are households.   

Therefore, Vizcarra suggests that developers who are dealing with rezoning matters do thorough due diligence. “Know the hot issues and have a key understanding of the zoning issues in the community. Look at similar applications from the past. What were the issues and outcomes? Research the ordinances and regulations,” he says, adding that they should also take the time to figure out the hierarchy of the city. “Gather support like a political campaign.” Vizcarra recommends attending chamber of commerce meetings in an effort to meet neighbors and committee members. You could also hire a consultant or planner to help with the process.

National Solutions
So, how is the industry expected to continue to thrive in these increasingly regulatory and litigious times? Vizcarra believes that the burdens of ADA lawsuits and zoning code issues could be lessened with the help of the Self Storage Association (SSA).

As for ADA lawsuits, Vizcarra says, “The SSA, supported by state members, undertook a campaign at the state level in the 1980s to establish lien sale laws. This undertaking was highly effective but took several years to accomplish. Since ADA is a federal law, the SSA should campaign to institute changes on a federal level. The ideal legislation would be that a lawsuit could not be filed until the subject business had been given written notice of the violation as well as 60 days to come into compliance.”

And regarding zoning codes, Vizcarra states that industry-wide standards could help cities see that self-storage belongs in neighborhoods. “SSA should campaign to institute changes in the zoning code to allow development of self-storage facilities without restrictive barriers to entry,” he says.

Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.

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