Ed McMahon Speaks in Northumberland: “Models For Development Workshop”
A group of prominent local organizations invited Mr. Ed McMahon, of the Conservation Fund to speak to us here in Northumberland County. Mr. McMahon is nationally known as an inspiring and thought provoking speaker. He is a leading authority on topics related to appropriate land use: land use that preserves the natural beauty, culture and heritage of the area. Mr. McMahon is Vice President and Director of Land Use Planning for The Conservation Fund where he works to improve both conservation and development practices through programs that balance economic and environmental goals. Some in the county heard Mr. McMahon last February when he spoke to these important issues at WestMinster Canterbury. Those attending were impressed with his no-nonsense approach to retaining the basic character and charm of an area while still accommodating growth.
This workshop was a cooperative community effort with sponsorship by a number of local organizations including:
- Audubon Society
- Chesapeake Bay Garden Club
- Master Gardeners of the Northern Neck
- NN Tourism Council
- Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship
- Northumberland Community Center Organization
- Reedville Fishermen’s Museum
- Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern Foundation
- Northumberland County Government.
Sponsorship entailed agenda support while Mr. McMahon was in town and organizational support of an appropriate share of the Conservation Fund’s fee of $1,500 plus expenses.
We in Northumberland County are faced with exactly the dilemma Mr. McMahon describes. As you know, we are a small bay-coast county at the mouth of the Potomac with a heritage of fishing, farming and logging. Our people are honest and friendly, and the quality of country life is excellent! Until this year, the county has not even had a stoplight. Now we have our first stop light, building permits are up and we are faced with a future that we believe includes intense growth. Are heavy traffic, strip malls, and complete disruption of our way of life far behind?
As one of the most desirable development areas in Virginia, we recognize that growth is inevitable. We are interested in approaches to tailoring that growth to the environment that we all enjoy. Our various organizations have but one common objective: we would like to take advantage of Mr. McManon’s insights and experience to further unify and focus our county in its approach to growth. His presentation provided a part of our information base for future work. If County citizens and County Government can develop and work from the same playbook, we will have our best shot at retention, maybe even improvement, of our way of life.
The following is notes from the workshop:
Models for Development Workshop
By Mr. Ed McMahon
Northumberland High School
September 16, 2004
Notes by Mike Harwood
You really had to have been there. Mr. McMahon gave a very spirited and thorough presentation, integrating a series of comparing and contrasting slides with his wonderful speaking skills and delightful sense of humor to hammer home point after point regarding the need for planning and preparing for future development within our county. In these notes I will attempt to capture the main points that he made, but you really had to have been there.
Lee Allain, who did a masterful job planning and orchestrating this event, thanked all of the many local organizational sponsors for their support, and the members of the Northumberland County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission for their support and attendance. He described the County tour earlier that day wherein Mr. McMahon received a brief boat tour of the Cockrell’s Creek harbor conducted by Planning Commission Chairman Al (Junior) Fisher. This was followed by a trip up and down Main Street narrated by Susan Tipton, a visit to the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum guided by Jan Boyd, a stop at the Sunny Bank Ferry, a tour of Keyser Seafood conducted by Calvin and Tom Keyser, a tour of Cowart Packing by Lake Cowart, Jr., and a visit to Rice’s Hotel and Hughlett’s Tavern guided by Peggy Fleming. The tour concluded with dinner at Bambery’s Restaurant joined by Kenny Eades and representatives of the event sponsoring organizations.
Mr. Allain introduced speaker Ed McMahon who obviously had high credentials qualifying him to speak on this subject. Currently, Mr. McMahon is a Senior Fellow with the prestigious Urban Land Institute, which lists “sustainable development” as one of its many interests.
Mr. McMahon opened his presentation with a wonderful picture of his son as a young boy standing in a pumpkin field. He stressed that planning and preparing for community development is all about looking out for the future of the children and grandchildren of our community as they grow and inherit the legacy and cultural environment we leave behind for them.
Mr. McMahon referred to his book: ”Better Models for Development in Virginia” that addresses better ideas for constructing new franchise outlets and large box stores in established communities. He made free copies available to county officials. He stressed that the question is not what will the companies give us in the way of architectural design, but rather “What do we want?” He illustrated this point with numerous slides of leading franchises and large box stores that had bowed to the wishes of local governments and citizens within the communities.
Sense of place. Mr. McMahon quoted Aldo Leopold, “Conservation is a state of harmony between man and nature”; and “everything is connected to everything else.” He said that America is the world leader in conservation laws, national parks, memorials, and statues, etc. But said that at the same time, the special landscapes of small towns are disappearing. He said the small towns are losing their place. He quoted Alex Steque, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Mr. McMahon said that our sense of place makes our physical place worth caring about.
Growth. Mr. McMahon said growth is inevitable and desirable. But, he added, degrading our unique surroundings is not inevitable. He asked why there are so many fights in Virginia about development. He said they lie within the patterns of development: “where to put it, how to arrange it and what it should look like?” But he said the real question should often be, “where should a building or development not be built?” He gave as examples of developers who build beach houses in front of sand dunes, and in flood plains. He said that some places are better for growth than others, and communities need construction area plans to prepare for this.
Historical preservation. Mr. McMahon reviewed some of the battles fought over historical preservation areas in Virginia. He said, “We have often saved the places, but lost the locations” by allowing strip mall developers to infringe too closely on the historical sites.
Goals for development:
- Health environment
- Vigorous economy
- Vibrant community
Building green neighborhoods. Mr. McMahon said that studies show that, “developed lots with trees sell better than lots with no trees.” He said that some of the values to developers of trees and landscaping are: increases financial return, increases rate of project absorption, increases productivity, and improves morale and job satisfaction.
Gateway to a community. Mr. McMahon showed slides of a welcome sign (similar to the dilapidated one our county has on Rte 200) and a nicely prepared and maintained one. He asked, “Which community would you rather settle in?” He said that community image and county pride are critical to its vitality and quality of life.
Uniqueness. He said that the more we do to preserve the uniqueness of our community, the more profitable it will be. He said a recent survey of retirees by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAH) as to their priorities for selecting retirement locations showed that the top two responses were “scenic landscapes and quaint towns”, and “access to outdoor recreation.” “Moderate, four season climate” and “reasonable cost of living” came in third and fourth. He said you can place a dollar value on scenic view. The better the view, the higher the value. He said another NAH survey shows that the single most important value in finding a home is surrounding environment. He said the most important amenities in the survey are: walking trials and bike paths, parks, playgrounds, day care centers, soccer fields, and (last) golf courses.
Mr. McMahon said that it is critically important that we identify and preserve historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes. He said that historical preservation is so important to the wellbeing of a community because there are places that physically link us with the past and remind us of who we are.
Traditional economic development. Mr. McMahon asked, “What are we building today that will be worth preserving in the future?” He quoted Winston Churchill “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” He said that new construction should enhance community character. He asked, “How many commercial buildings would you be proud to take someone to see?” He showed examples of food franchises, nationwide pharmacies and large box stores throughout the country with their traditional architecture and those that reflect the local town environment. He said that when it comes to development within a community, sameness is not a plus. He said new buildings should complement other buildings in the community. He said development planners must be savvy enough to fit the new construction into the other buildings in the community. He said it is never too late, and certainly not for Northumberland County. He said that while we not have all of the franchise and big box stores yet, they are coming.
Sustainable tourism. He said the keys to sustainable tourism are education and interpretation. He said Northumberland County has a story too tell, and we can do it with historical markers. He also showed examples of public art used to tell the history of the community. He suggested sculptures of lovable objects that define our neighborhoods.
Open space conservation. Mr. McMahon said the change in the acreage of urbanized land is fast outgrowing changes in population. He said surveys tell us that a nice neighborhood is more important than lot size.
Green space development. Mr. McMahon asked why surveys show that the vast majority of people living on golf courses do not play golf. He answered it is because people want open green space and a view. He said we need to build developments around golf courses, without the golf courses.
Town centers. Mr. McMahon said the future for development belongs to town centers. He said people are moving back to city residences so they are within walking distance of the town centers. People prefer them to “ugly and congested strip malls.” He said town centers are outselling strip centers throughout America.
Recommendations for success.
- Develop a vision for the future
- Inventory local resources
- Build local plans around the enhancement of natural and cultural assets
- Use education, incentives and voluntary initiatives, not just regulation
- Pick and choose among development proposals
- Coordinate with development planners
(I missed the rest)
The most important questions in the County:
- What should we do?
- And then, what will it cost. He said “money follows good causes”.
Mr. McMahon said we need to use the Northern neck Land Trust through voluntary initiation and incentives. He said we need to develop voluntary architectural guidelines for commercial buildings.
The power of place. He said we need preservation of historical places, buildings and views. He said what we really should be trying to do is preserve memory. He said it is important not only to preserve the economy of an area, but also the psychology. He said these places are emblematic of Virginia.
At this point a break was declared by Lee Allain, followed by comments from the following sponsor representatives. High school volunteers were used to restrict each speaker to 10 minutes.
- Wonda Allain, Chesapeake Bay Garden Club, described the activities of the Club, adding that she agreed with Mr. McMahon that “physical surroundings are worth worrying about.” She touched on promotion of growth and progress and conservation education in the local school systems.
- Susan Tipton spoke for the Northern Neck Master Gardeners describing their activities and the following priorities: shoreline development, water quality problems and the green appearance of the County.
- Sally Conley spoke for the NAACP, stating that her organization represents all people when wrong is done.
- Patty Long, representing the Northern Neck Tourism Council, said that this organization has a stake in development of green areas and preserving the quality of our County. She said that one of the new activities is to bring the museums to the schools to teach the quality of the area the children live in and to encourage them to preserve it.
- Susan Lindsey spoke for the Northumberland Association For Progressive Stewardship (NAPS). She reviewed the NAPS’ goals, emphasizing “stewardship,” and encouraged attendees to read Dr. Lynton Land’s “NAPS tips” in the local newspapers.
- Jim Long spoke for Inez Bates of the Northumberland Community Center, inviting attendees to attend a fundraiser by local Democrats during the first week of October at the Center.
- Jan Boyd represented the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, outlining the work being done there. She reviewed very impressive statistics for August 10, 2004 to the present, of visitors who sign the guest book, from all over the United States as well as from around the world.
- Peggy Fleming, representing Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern Foundation, reviewed the historical preservation work done and being done at the site.
Al Fisher was asked to speak and invited anyone with ideas to attend the monthly Planning Commission meetings and present them. He said he firmly believes in one of Mr. McMahon’s quotations. “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.”
Questions and answers:
- What is meant by “sustainable development” as compared with simply “development?” Mr. McMahon responded that “sustainable” development is good for the environment, business and the community. He added that the best way to protect the future of our County is to plan for it, thinking into the future.
- How can we best protect our “sky environment” against the “klieg lights” people are using at night that destroy the sky view? Mr. McMahon said that we need to have a “Night Sky Standards Ordinance” and that there are outdoor security lights on the market that direct the light downward. (Bob Kane has information on this issue.)
- Is it possible to have “limits on growth”? Mr. McMahon said that some states, like Oregon, have growth limits surrounding their towns beyond which building is restricted. But politically, this would not be possible in Virginia, a Dillon Rule state, unless such restrictions are allowed by state law. However, he said it is possible in Virginia to have land conservation green space. He said every other state in the east has these programs. He said we have conservation easement programs, and described them. He said the Northern Neck Land Trust could make these programs possible.
Development as a tool for conservation. Mr. McMahon said it is possible to have limited conservation development on only a few lots, and a conservation easement on the rest of the acreage. Also, you can separate lot size from density. He gave the example of a housing development where, instead of one acre lots, the developer divided into one-half acre lots and reserved the rest of the land for open space. This would save the developer by requiring fewer roads, etc. he also discussed the proffer system that is working in Lowden County to conserve land and provide open space. He said that with the Dillon Rule, the counties must be more creative.
Lee Allain thanked speaker Ed McMahon for his provocative presentation. He also thanked the sponsors and the board of Supervisors for their support, the supporting volunteers, and the people in the audience for attending.
The Workshop was sponsored by a number of local organizations including: