Wild & Scenic Mokelumne Update

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Protecting community character as our area grows
Planner Ed McMahon urges Amador residents to develop a vision—and act on it “The best way to predict the future of your community is to plan it yourself.” This was a recurring theme in speaker Ed McMahon’s Amador County presentation on Tuesday morning, March 29. McMahon’s visit was arranged by the Amador Regional Planning Committee and cosponsored by various organizations and businesses, including the Foothill Conservancy.

“You’ve got some of the most beautiful landscape on the planet Earth in this county,” he said, in urging us to take charge of our community’s future. “If you don’t manage change, it will destroy everything you care about in your community ... Failing to plan means planning to fail.”

But McMahon’s message was anything but dire. He urged local residents and officials packing the board of supervisors’ chamber to start talking to one another to develop a vision for our communities’ future built on shared areas of agreement. He then provided examples of how communities throughout the United States have done just that.

McMahon, a native of Alabama, “saw the American landscape with a completely new set of eyes” after spending time in the service in Germany. After his return, he became a city and regional planner, attorney, and expert on sustainable development. The author of many related books, he is now the Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

McMahon gave three presentations in Jackson, one on the “Dollars and Sense of Preserving Community Character,” and two on “Keys to Sustainable Tourism.” This article focuses on his first presentation. We’ll discuss his advice on tourism in our next Focus, but leave you with this high point for now. While in the area, McMahon visited the Mokelumne River’s Electra Run. During his noon tourism talk in Jackson, he remarked about it to the audience, saying, “What a masterpiece! What an asset!”

We wholeheartedly agree.

Sustainability and first principles

McMahon began his talk with a discussion of sustainability, which he said is “about our kids—what to give to them, what to leave them.” A sustainable approach must benefit and balance the economy, environment and community. McMahon urged the audience to, “First, figure out where you should not develop. Every community needs a long-range conservation plan.” In his experience, plans of this type reduce opposition to development proposals because everyone has already agreed which local areas and assets should be protected and preserved.

In discussing sustainability, McMahon demonstrated how green principles can apply to neighborhood design. He showed how something as simple as narrower streets can lead to better neighborhoods, greater developer profits, lower home prices and improved pedestrian safety.

McMahon urged the audience to consider how to use local open space and landscapes to create value, providing examples and data on the value of trees and landscaping in community and project design. Saving trees and open space may cost more initially, but it creates lasting value. “Cost and value are not the same,” he said.

People want to live near beautiful landscapes, McMahon said. He described “conservation developments,” which preserve common open space, as less expensive to build and equally, if not more attractive to homebuyers than golf course subdivisions.

In a conservation development, the common open spaces can be used by everyone, and they cost millions less than a golf course to build and maintain. They also do a better job of meeting the sustainability triple bottom line: They’re more environmentally sound, less costly and provide recreation and enjoyment to more people.

Community image and identity critical

Over and over, McMahon emphasized that a community’s image is essential to its economic vitality and quality of life. People judge communities, like other people, by their appearance. For communities, image is “fundamentally important to economic well-being.”

Maintaining unique community identity is critical for tourism, too. “The more Amador County starts to look like everywhere else, the less people will want to visit,” he asserted.

“Sameness is not a plus,” he said. “The more you do to differentiate your community from all others, the better it is for your community economically.” Historic towns, features, buildings and neighborhoods make up a big part of Amador County’s image. “Why is historic preservation important?” McMahon asked, answering, “Historic sites are the places that physically connect us to the past—that connect us to who we are and where we came from.” He described historic preservation as “saving the heart and soul” of our community.

Historic preservation is also “incredibly important” for the economy. McMahon showed slides of popular historic sites in cities across the country that contribute millions to local economies each year. Noting that Seattle’s Pike Place Market was nearly torn down to use the space for parking, he said, “Parking for what? You can have all the parking in the world and if there is nothing to do, no one will go there.”

McMahon urged his attentive audience to push for good design in new construction, too.

“What are you building today that will be worth saving in the future?” he asked. New construction should -enhance community character and fit the local historic and architectural context.

McMahon showed slide after slide of common fast-food restaurants designed to fit into historic communities, contrasting them with the basic, cookie-cutter design. Some were even built in historic buildings. How did this happen? “You have to ask for it,” said McMahon. “You need to raise your expectations. The community with high standards will compete to the top.”

“Secrets of successful communities”

McMahon discussed eight elements required for successful communities:

  • Develop a vision for the future.
  • Inventory your local assets and resources.
  • Build plans around enhancement of those documented assets.
  • Use education, incentives, partnerships, and voluntary incentives, not just regulation.
  • Pick and choose among development proposals.
  • Cooperate with your neighbors for mutual gain.
  • Protect community character as well as its ecology and economics
  • Have strong leaders and committed citizens.

In describing the fit with economic development, McMahon pointed out that “Economic development is about what you do have, not what you don’t.”

It’s not too late to change

McMahon held out hope for those who may worry that it’s too late to recover from our recent history of creeping strip development and the proliferation of ugly signs.

“Community character deteriorates one building and one project at a time,” he said. “It can be restored one building and one project at a time.” In closing, McMahon again urged community members to talk—and listen—to one another. He emphasized that developing a shared vision for the future is just the beginning, “A vision counts, but implementation is priceless.”

McMahon’s presentation slides are posted on the Amador Regional Planning Committee website.

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