Multi-unit franchisee owners should be fully aware of the specific considerations relevant to small commercial site development prior to committing to a lease or property purchase. The challenge of fitting many required components onto a small parcel can be daunting, especially when considered in conjunction with evolving local ordinances and state regulations, which are on the rise. The best method of ensuring that the proposed site will work, and do so in the most efficient manner possible, is to apply rigorous due diligence in the development design process.
Parameters for successful development of small sites for development-ready outparcels versus stand-alone or freestanding sites have somewhat different requirements however, they do share a primary development goal. The foremost consideration for either parcel should always stay focused on the site's ability to enhance and maximize customer convenience.
Zoning and Regulations
The first step in evaluating the viability of a small commercial outparcel should be a review of the zoning code and approved master-plan design parameters. Evaluating stand-alone sites for the same purpose is far more straightforward, as all relevant information is likely to be contained in the local zoning code. For outparcels, however, the approved master plan defines parameters for approval that address use compatibility, parking, landscape and open space. More recently, local governments are also requiring that parking and building layouts be identified on the master plan for approval. It's a rare occurrence that the end user can work within the limitations imposed by the master plan's specific design constraints and any modification may require an amendment to the approved plan which could add several months to the approval process. The developer will need to explore options that will offer reassurance to the jurisdiction that the modifications requested will not have an adverse impact on development.
The main objective in basic design concepts for small sites is to provide a convenient customer circulation route. This involves the ingress and egress points, as well as vehicular circulation once the customer has entered the site. For stand-alone sites, the location of the driveway may be dictated by the distances from the adjacent parcel's driveway. For outparcels with defined entry and exit points, the buyer must be sure that the site's appropriate cross-access easements are in place and that they are consistent with the site's traffic flow. Consideration must also be given to accommodating vehicles larger than most cars, such as life-safety vehicles (fire trucks and EMTs), as well as solid waste and delivery trucks.
There are further limitations imposed both by the site's orientation and landscape buffer requirements. In some cases, a wide landscape buffer may be required ranging from as much as 25 to 50 feet, which will considerably impact the site's usability. Not only will the building's site orientation, flow and circulation of vehicular traffic be affected, but the most critical component, roadway visibility, may be seriously impacted as well. Landscape buffers, which often are required on all sides of the parcel, as well as internal landscape island parking areas, continue to erode the usable site area for the development.
In some areas of the country, the stormwater system, which often requires a considerable amount of land, can quickly erode the useable space on a small commercial site. In most states, the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) issues permits based on two concepts: the quality of the stormwater running off the property (controlling the pollution aspect), and / or the quantity, or amount of the stormwater leaving the property during rainfall events. The system design can vary significantly based on state or local agency regulations. Both surface ponds and underground systems can be utilized to satisfy stormwater requirements, however, underground systems can add to the costs significantly. Often, master-planned outparcels will account for stormwater design concerns by providing a master stormwater system; however, stand-alone sites require closer scrutiny. The soil conditions may play an important role in determining both the viability and type of stormwater drainage system best suited for the site, which will be known only after the site-specific geotechnical report is available. Since this information may not be available in the initial preliminary design phase, the new data should be evaluated as the process unfolds.
Grade and Landscape
It's prudent to evaluate a wooded parcel early for costs associated with tree replacement requirements for both stand-alone and outparcel sites. As jurisdictions around the country become more eco-sensitive, oftentimes requirements call for the replacement of trees for those that are removed. In some cases the replacement is measured inch for inch, so for example, the removal of a 36-inch caliper, protected-oak specimen would require at least 36 inches of trees to replace that single tree. This usually can be in the form of multiple smaller trees, which results in taking up even more site area. If the site is heavily wooded, it is evident that the expense in tree-replacement costs could be hefty, and result in a post-development site that is heavily treed. Of course, if all the required trees will not actually "fit" on the site, many municipalities offer developers a tree "bank" where they have the option to assume the cost to pay for trees to be planted elsewhere in the community, though this is often a very last resort with jurisdictions. However, the true costs for developing wooded parcels may remain an unknown until the municipality reviews the plans and makes a final determination.
Regardless of whether a site is being developed as an outparcel or a stand-alone site, key challenges must be revealed relevant to integrating required improvements, and at the same time, uncover the actual remaining buildable area. Since the requirements of the approvals process continue to become more stringent in order to manage growth, the challenges that are posed are tough in developing a small, commercial site. Due diligence remains critical in making certain a site makes good financial sense and will yield the bottom line expected return to achieve long-term development goals, and at the same time, ensure that the site remains functional and usable by the customer. If the site comes complete with a packaged site infrastructure, it is imperative when drawing up a purchase or lease agreement, that all the specific details are clearly defined.
Bob Ziegenfuss, P.E., is director of civil engineering for Interplan CE LLC., and is registered in 42 states. Bob managed more than 300 projects for national restaurant, retail, and corporate franchisee and franchisor programs throughout the Southeast U.S. in the last twelve years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407 645-5008 or 800 373-5552.