Municipal Considerations

High cube and automated warehousing brings numerous implications that should be considered and planned for by local leaders in response to changing landscapes, safety and quality of life impacts. These considerations stem from the height of these development types, impacts on the workforce, reuse potential, transportation, water, sewer and stormwater system impacts and emergency services implications. Therefore, municipal considerations are wide-ranging, from traffic and transportation, to land use and zoning, to fire and police services.

As municipalities consider the most appropriate ways to address these uses between zoning, subdivision and land development or building code regulations, it’s important to understand the three distinct manners in which they may emerge:

  • New construction, or greenfield development, involves the construction of a facility at an undeveloped new location. In this situation, municipal regulatory controls are likely to have the greatest impact because zoning, land development and building codes all apply.
  • Redevelopment is when a building or developed site is changed. Modifications are generally considered substantial when 50% or more of the building(s) and/or site are changed. This covers everything from a tower or major addition to an existing building, a large industrial use change that would markedly increase traffic but may not alter the structure of the existing building, or a complete removal of existing structures to build new. Municipal control in redevelopment will depend on the scale and extent of which a building and/or site is redeveloped. Zoning and building codes review will apply in all cases, however in major redevelopments local land development regulations should also apply.
  • Retrofit of a facility for automated uses includes retention of the existing building and site, with interior renovations to accommodate the new use. Essentially, no volume changes to the existing building are proposed and alterations are largely, if not exclusively, internal. In these cases, municipal regulatory options are limited, with building codes likely the only management tool available, though there may be exceptions depending on the use categories defined in the zoning ordinance.

Municipal governments can be challenged in determining which rules and regulations apply as a result of the variety and scale of high cube and automated warehousing. It is easiest to think about the volume of a development as a measure of its impact on the community.

Volume is a vital consideration in high cube and automated warehousing because instead of the traditional model of storing goods on the ground floor, nearly all of the space within a high cube building is used for goods storage. While a 24-foot traditional warehouse is often shorter than a typical three-story home, a 100-foot high cube warehouse rivals the nine or ten stories found in Allentown’s Lehigh County Courthouse or Easton’s Alpha Building.

This 3D graphic illustrates the same 4.8 million cubic volume of space allocated in a high cube versus a traditional warehouse. The traditional warehouse is 200,000 square feet with a 24-foot ceiling height common in the Lehigh Valley, built over 4.6 acres of land, while the footprint of a 100-foot ceiling height high cube fits on 1.1 acre of land.

Zoning Ordinance

  • New construction: Requires zoning approval for appropriately locating the land use within a community and on the property itself.
  • Redevelopment: Standards for zoning districts must be met, although a comprehensive review of the proposal in consideration of all standards within the zoning ordinance may only be required when a substantial change to the site is proposed, such as a change to the building footprint or land use. For example, the Americold cold storage facility in Upper Macungie Township is pre-existing, therefore, increasing the height scale of that existing use above the locally allowable limit has triggered a zoning review and subsequent height variance request.
  • Retrofit: Least likely to trigger a zoning review, unless there are significant site improvements proposed simultaneously, because the use and building footprint are not typically changing. Though substantial changes in water, sewer, stormwater, electric, gas, transportation and emergency management services needs may require other reviews and permits beyond zoning. Specifically defining High Cube and Automated Warehouses in the zoning ordinance is extremely important here. A retrofit that changes the defined use of a facility will trigger a zoning review and enable the municipality to better assess the impacts of the proposal on the community.

In any of the three potential development scenarios, the land use must be permissible in the zoning district in which it is proposed. In all cases, a project cannot exceed maximum lot or building provisions standards outlined for the applicable zoning district.

Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance

  • New construction: New developments require a subdivision and land development plan, enabling a community to more comprehensively assess impacts of the proposal. The provisions of the municipal subdivision and land development ordinance are applicable for new projects, including general impact and improvements provisions. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code specifically requires that, at a minimum, development plans outline “any subdivision, all covenants relating to use, location and bulk of buildings and other structures, intensity of use or density of development, streets, ways and parking facilities, common open space and public facilities.” [Act of 1968, P.L.805, No.247 as reenacted and amended, Article 1§107. Definitions].
  • Redevelopment: The municipal subdivision and land development ordinance typically only applies if the proposal substantially changes the site or the building. Again, the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code gives broad power to the municipal government to decide whether to process a redevelopment plan as a retrofit or a development proposal. Specifically, the state law broadly outlines:

“(1) The improvement of one lot or two or more contiguous lots, tracts or parcels of land for any purpose involving:

(i) a group of two or more residential or non-residential buildings, whether proposed initially or cumulatively, or a single non-residential building on a lot or lots regardless of the number of occupants or tenure; or

(ii) the division or allocation of land or space, whether initially or cumulatively, between or among two or more existing or prospective occupants by means of, or for the purpose of streets, common areas, leaseholds, condominiums, building groups or other features.” [Act of 1968, P.L.805, No.247 as reenacted and amended, Article 1§107. Definitions].

  • Retrofit: May or may not require a land development plan based on the intensity, timing, character and cumulative nature of what is being proposed.

This table provides a quick reference for which municipal tools are most applicable to each development scenario:

Building Codes

In cases of redevelopment and retrofit where only building codes apply, municipalities should establish a process by which they can adequately determine the same use-related information that would otherwise be provided in a zoning or subdivision and land development review. The Pennsylvania Universal Construction Code is a statewide standard, applicable in all development scenarios that a municipality cannot supersede. However, the building code review process contains opportunities to implement alternative tools to help assess impacts of a development. An assessment form, for example, may provide a municipality with information relating to impacts to emergency services, transportation infrastructure, the economy and the environment.