Saltwater Portrait

Mike Strange is no stranger to planning

Rehoboth's newest planner brings engineering expertise
Mike Strange is the newest member of the planning commission in Rehoboth. BY RYAN MAVITY
January 8, 2013

Rehoboth Beach Planning Commissioner Mike Strange's life journey has had its share of twists and turns.

Appointed in October, Strange is the newest member of the planning commission. At 64, Strange has spent the last 15 years working as a planner in the public and private sector, and he has the professorial look to match.

Planning is a career that Strange fell into, but one he has grown to love. “What appeals to me is you’re trying to figure out the unknown,” Strange said of planning. “Most people are very uncomfortable with dealing with things that aren’t exact or specific. I love dealing with what people perceive as unsolvable problems. You go with and try to calculate and examine what people really value, what they really want and how to achieve it in a fair and reasonable fashion.”

Strange’s first trip to Rehoboth came in 1977, when he would visit during a period when he was working for a Millsboro company. After three years, the company decided to relocate to Easley, S.C., a place to which Strange had no intention of going.

“The week they were going to have people go down and show them how beautiful the area was, was the same week the Ku Klux Klan had a rally in the center of the town and had a bonfire,” he said.

Strange and his wife, Nan, moved back to their native New Jersey, but they continued to come to Rehoboth for vacations before moving to town full-time in 2006. The Stranges have been married for 41 years and have one daughter, Julie, 30, who is now married and working in the Maryland library system.

Strange said from the beginning, he loved Rehoboth because it reminded him of the beach near Seaside, N.J., that he went to as a child. He said now he just loves being around the ocean.

“We’re a small town that happens to be near the ocean,” Strange said of Rehoboth. “And I absolutely love that.”

His career serving in the public and private sector as an engineer and planner had an auspicious beginning.

A native of East Orange, N.J., his first experience in planning came about when he was 19 years old and a freshman engineering student at North College of Engineering in Newark, N.J. An asphalt plant was seeking a variance to build across from his house, a project that drew the ire of neighbors, who asked Strange to do some research. Working at his college library – this being pre-internet 1966, the library was the only place to do research – he came up with a report on patterns of cancer around asphalt plants.

“It sort of peaked my interest, because I always look at the engineering side of things,” Strange said.

Strange presented his report to the local planning council, who voted to deny the variance. "I was fascinated by that," Strange said.

Strange had planned a career in electronics, but he minored in land-use planning and later got a master’s degree. He was working on a doctorate but suffered a setback when his mother passed away. At that point, Strange switched gears and went into electronics, which became his career until a twist of fate sent him back into planning.

In 1998, Strange was on his way to a meeting when a serious automobile accident nearly killed him.

“They were putting up sound walls on the highway, and there was some construction, and a little bit of a rise. It was near Cherry Hill (N.J). I stopped, but the truck behind me didn’t, didn’t see us, came up over a rise, crashed into me and drove me into another van. I went unconscious, and I suffered a closed head wound and lost my memory. I heard the breaking of the glass, and that’s all I remember,” he said.

The accident was life-changing.

“I couldn’t do things. I couldn’t figure things out,” he said.

But suddenly, one morning, he said he felt himself have a breakthrough, and he was again able to retain knowledge. “It was the most amazing phenomenon,” Strange said.

While he still has problems with his short-short-term memory and occasionally feels buzzing in his head, the long-term ill effects of the accident are relatively minor.

After the near-fatal accident, Strange decided to retire, but he soon decided to pursue planning as a second career. He started in the healthcare sector, with the American College of Physicians, where he worked for several years before retiring for a second time.

Restless again, Strange seized an opportunity to work as a long-range planner with the Delaware Department of Transportation. During his time there, Strange had to adjust to the differences between the public and private sector. He said success in the private sector is measured by dollars, while in the public sector, success is more difficult to measure.

“In private enterprise, you can pick your market. In the public sector, you can’t pick and choose, nor should you, because it's people. It’s citizens. You can’t say, ‘Why should we spend all this money on ADA ramps? There’s not that many people that are disabled.’ Doesn’t matter what the number is. It’s a compassionate society. You don’t toss people away because they can’t do something,” Strange said.

“That was the part that surprised me the most,” he said.

Now, Strange is retired for the third time, allowing him to pursue the opportunity of serving on the planning commission. He said Mayor Sam Cooper had offered him the position several years ago, but he turned down because he couldn’t devote enough time to it.

“I felt privileged to be a part of it,” Strange said. “I take it very seriously. I’m excited about it, and I think the key word is privileged. I think it’s an honor to serve.”

He said the challenge for him, and what he looks forward to doing as a planning commissioner, is to create plans that are resilient and fair.

“There’s no simple solutions. Just reasonable ones that you can hopefully come up with to satisfy a majority of citizens,” Strange said.

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