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Taking a Closer Look

All Development Is Not Created Equal

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Has your commission ever been pressured to lower its standards under the guise of generating economic development? Do you have elected officials who think all growth is good regardless of the long-range costs or the birth-right of future generations?

A few months ago, during a workshop I conducted in Virginia, a planning commissioner told me that a national restaurant chain wanted to erect an enormous sign — more than double the size permitted by county ordinance — next to their proposed restaurant along the interstate. The restaurant developer had not so subtly suggested that they might locate their business elsewhere, unless they received the variance. What was my experience with this kind of request? he asked.

I responded by saying that a community’s image is important to its economic well-being. The best places to live, work, and visit are those places that are willing to uphold their standards in the face of pressure to allow lowest common denominator development. The bottom line for most businesses is securing access to profitable trade areas. They evaluate locations based on their economic potential. If they are required to address local design, landscaping, or signage requirements, they will usually do so. They might prefer a gaudy 100-foot tall sign, but they will settle for the 20-foot tall sign everybody else has.

By chance I happened to have with me several slides of a restaurant from the same chain located across the border in Maryland. This restaurant had a low sign — and a full parking lot! …

End of excerpt

photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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