Ed McMahon: No place stays special by accident

Land-use planner has long ties to Cape Region
November 8, 2016

More than 120 people turned out on a Saturday morning at the Rehoboth Beach fire hall to hear a talk on a topic many might find dry and arcane. In the hands of Ed McMahon the topic - city planning - is engrossing and entertaining.

With his bushy, handlebar mustache, folksy demeanor and Alabama accent, McMahon wouldn’t seem the type to be a distinguished land-use planner. He kept his Nov. 5 talk in Rehoboth loose, but always interesting, letting his audience in on the “Secrets of Successful Communities.”

McMahon, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said he became interested in planning while he was in the army, stationed in Heidelburg, Germany. That he was in Germany in the first place was a happy accident, he said - he was spared service in the Vietnam War to serve as an aide-de-camp for a general based in Heidelburg, in then-West Germany. McMahon said as he traveled all around Europe via aircraft, he began to see the landscape differently. When he got back home to Alabama, he said he saw America in a new way and became interested in land-use development.

A senior resident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, McMahon began his talk by telling Rehoboth residents that their town was a special place, but keeping it that way would require attention.

“No place will stay special by accident,” he said. “You either grow by choice or grow by chance.”

McMahon would know: As a student at Georgetown University, he spent his summers as a lifeguard in Bethany Beach and owns a second home in Lewes. He said the trick for a town like Rehoboth is how to maximize the benefits of the town’s main economic driver - tourism - while minimizing the downside.

The first way to do that is by emphasizing sustainable development.

“A sustainable community is a community of enduring value,” McMahon said.

He said a sustainable community goes for quality over quantity, giving tourists a unique experience that they can’t get anywhere else.

“All tourists are not created equal,” McMahon said. “The image of a community is central to its economic vitality.”

As examples, he pointed to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Lancaster County, Pa. The former, McMahon said, had an image as a haven for spring breakers, who while great in volume, did not spend a lot of money within the community. He said the town changed course, and focused on a smaller feel with boutique shops and restaurants. That led to a decline in spring breakers,  McMahon said, yet the town is doing very well because the experience is better and more unique.

Regarding Lancaster County, he said that is a case where the image doesn’t match the reality. The image is of open fields and Amish horse and buggies going down the street, McMahon said, but the reality is strip malls and lots of asphalt.

“Successful communities are unique communities. Distinctiveness has value,” McMahon said. “The place is becoming more important than the product.”

This is particularly true for millennials, he said, who have been moving back to the cities and rejecting big shopping malls and parking lots in favor of more open space and walkable, more compact neighborhoods.

He said successful cities know the value of trees and landscaping, which have been shown to increase property values. Successful cities also use historic districts to preserve and increase the value of buildings, McMahon said. Heritage tourism has become a big business, and historic districts help show the heart and soul of a community, he said.

“Every community has places worth preserving,” McMahon said.

In this respect, he spoke against the rise of supersize homes, which he referred to as mini-hotels, a problem Rehoboth dealt with last year. McMahon said communities that have dealt with the rise of large-scale homes have to make a choice: Do you want homes designed for the AirBnB rental market, or do you want homes occupied by families?

McMahon said some tools communities have used to combat supersize homes are floor-to-area ratios - which Rehoboth already has - as well as conservation districts and regulating bulk and what a home looks like, rather than its use. To get developers to comply, McMahon said some communities have given development incentives such as tax breaks.

“Sometimes, you need carrots and not just sticks,” he said.

McMahon said cities are increasingly beefing up their bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure; if you plan for cars, cars is what you will get, he said. McMahon said successful communities get people out of cars and biking or walking

McMahon also said successful communities market themselves. He said Rehoboth could tell its story in different ways, using public art and historical markers. At the same time, he said the town should recognize the limits of tourism.

“Tourism development must be managed. If not, it creates resentments,” McMahon said.

He said while a vision of a successful community often costs money, the implementation of that vision and its results are priceless.

“It’s never too late to plan for success,” McMahon said.