In sustainability programs and smart growth, some people see a United Nations plot to take over your community.
By Linda McIntyre
The commissioners of Baldwin County, Alabama, are set to decide this month whether to file the comprehensive county plan the commission adopted in July 2009—a plan that cost $280,000—in the garbage can. The commissioners passed the plan, by a vote of 3 to 1, as a way to “guide the timing and quality of future development” in the county, which borders the Gulf of Mexico. One commissioner, Charles “Skip” Gruber, told Connie Baggett of the Press-Register in Mobile that “[T]his was voted the best plan in Alabama, and we paid good money for that plan.” It was also the way for the county to comply with Alabama’s state requirement that localities “maintain a comprehensive plan,” as Baggett reported.
But now the state has a different kind of rule: In mid-May, the state’s lawmakers voted unanimously to pretty much proscribe any kind of planning, comprehensive or otherwise, by the state or its local jurisdictions that would “deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to, ‘Agenda 21.’”
Over the past few years, one of the most bizarre and widespread political conflicts about land use and sustainability centers on Agenda 21, a 20-year-old, nonbinding United Nations document that has become a piñata for people skeptical of sustainability programs and smart growth. What began as rants on conspiracy-minded web sites is now playing out in public meetings, op-ed pages, and statehouses across the country.
Agenda 21 (the “21” refers to the 21st century) is a broad, voluntary work plan for sustainable development that came out of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the Rio conference, more than 170 world leaders, including then-president George H. W. Bush, pledged to help developing countries grow in a sustainable manner and to conserve natural resources for future generations.
Some people see the pile of paper that details how these goals might be met as a power grab by international bureaucrats bent on dismantling the American dream. But the UN has no legal or political mechanisms to force any changes to national, state, or local laws.
Agenda 21, which can be read at www.un.org/esa/dsd/agenda21, is a long document written in the formal and ponderous language of international relations. Its Chapter 10, which covers a proposed “Integrated Approach to the Planning and Management of Land Resources,” is typical. It’s repetitive and vague, yet turgid enough to produce skepticism if not outright bewilderment among readers who are not used to the complicated and stiff language of consensus-based diplomacy.
Statements such as “Governments at the appropriate level, with the support of national and international organizations, should promote the improvement, further development, and widespread application of planning and management tools that facilitate an integrated and sustainable approach to land and resources” are all in a day’s work for international bureaucrats and policy wonks. They sound lofty and substantive. But a close reading of this and other Agenda 21 chapters reveals few specifics and no requirements that anyone actually must, or will, do anything, which is the main reason why all of the countries at a big international conference can sign off on this kind of statement.
Like most documents that come out of such conferences and summits, Agenda 21 got little attention outside international policy circles after the Rio summit (and reports released by the UN itself before its “Rio+20” meeting in June showed that little progress has been made on most of its issues). Although the topic surfaced occasionally among conservative and libertarian groups concerned about the potential for one-world government led by the UN, it found a broader audience only in the past few years.
Writing in March in the online magazine Salon, Liam Hysjulien dated Agenda 21’s move into the conservative mainstream to 2009, with the publication of an article in the American Thinker. The 2009 article, written by Scott Strzelczyk and Richard Rothschild, described the link between Agenda 21 and what is known as smart growth as “a breathtaking reshuffling of land rights” at the expense of private property owners.
Protection of property rights has long been an important part of the conservative political platform. For some on the right, Agenda 21 and its focus on sustainability represented an ideal political opportunity that more conservatives should seize, given that it brings together long-time obsessions of some of the movement’s thinkers, including skepticism of environmental regulation, distrust of the UN, and even hatred of communism. “Sustainable development is the greatest threat ever perpetrated against the American ideal of liberty,” wrote Tom DeWeese of the American Policy Center, a nonprofit group that promotes “free enterprise” and limited regulation, in December 2010. He described “sustainable development” as “the policy of the UN’s Agenda 21 that now permeates into every American city.”
Conservatives, DeWeese wrote, ignored the issue at their peril. “Sustainable development is not about environmental cleanup of rivers, air, and litter. It is an all-encompassing socialist scheme to combine social welfare programs with government control of private business, socialized medicine, national zoning controls of private property, and restructuring of school curriculums, which serves to indoctrinate children into politically correct groupthink. Sustainable development advocates seek oppressive taxes to control and punish behavior of which they don’t approve…including air-conditioning, fast foods, suburban housing, and automobiles.”
DeWeese got his wish. The perceived link between Agenda 21 and concern for the environment ramped up with the Republican primary campaign for the 2012 presidential election. The popular conservative TV commentator Glenn Beck said on his June 15, 2011, show that after reading through Agenda 21, “It becomes clear that ‘sustainable development’ is really just a nice way of saying ‘centralized control of all of human life on planet Earth.’” The former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, once a supporter of action to combat climate change, said during a November 2011 debate that he would “explicitly repudiate what Obama has done on Agenda 21.” The Republican National Committee at its January 2012 winter meeting adopted a resolution that recognized “the destructive and insidious nature of United Nations Agenda 21” and endorsed “the rejection of its radical policies.”
The campaign against Agenda 21 is not just talk. Last year, while I was researching an article about a collaborative plan for regional transportation and land use in Maine (see “A Shorter Hundred Miles,” LAM, April 2011), I stumbled on Agenda 21. Some opponents of the process in Maine, which is known as Gateway 1, expressed concern that it was part of Agenda 21, a global anti-property conspiracy led by the UN. It seemed like a bizarre, slightly amusing sideshow built on an assumption that planners and other land-use professionals, as well as the UN, have far more power than is actually the case.
But the outcome wasn’t funny. After the article was published, one of the Gateway 1 volunteers I had interviewed contacted me to report that the state Department of Transportation (DOT) under the newly elected governor, Paul LePage, had suspended the project, which started almost a decade ago. In a letter to participants, David Bernhardt, the commissioner of transportation under LePage, said that the project didn’t “correspond with the immediate priorities of this administration.”
The move was unexpected, and no specific reasons were given. The locally driven process had been started by the DOT, and the agency’s grants to participating communities had been modest. But LePage’s strong support from so-called Tea Party Republicans, a group associated with opposition to Agenda 21, meant the suspension of Gateway 1 got the attention of sustainability and smart-growth advocates across the country.
Gateway 1 isn’t alone as a target of Agenda 21 activists. Last year the Florida legislature abolished a “smart-growth” law that was passed in 1985. Agenda 21 has been cited by opponents of PlanMaryland, a statewide comprehensive plan with an emphasis on sustainable development. Also last year, in La Plata County, Colorado, a comprehensive plan based on two years of work and 137 public meetings was scrapped and the county planning director resigned. The reasons were vague, though opponents had raised Agenda 21-related objections and, as the reporter Jonathan Thompson wrote in a February article in High Country News, “there’s little doubt that the Agenders influenced the process.” Similar objections have been made in planning meetings in many other U.S. communities, including Lafayette, Louisiana; Chesterfield County, Virginia; Garland, Texas; and Edmond, Oklahoma.
Agenda 21 opponents have scored victories in state legislatures beyond Alabama’s. In May, the Kansas House of Representatives approved House Resolution 6032, to “recognize the destructive and insidious nature of United Nations Agenda 21” and to reject its “radical policies.” The New Hampshire House of Representatives approved legislation that bans local governments in the state from participating in the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a nonprofit with ties to the UN that provides technical advice, training, and information about sustainability and energy-efficiency programs. More than 1,200 local governments from around the world and across the United States are members of the council.
“Any ideas the United Nations had about taking over the state of Alabama are gone,” chided the writer Kevin Collins on the web site of the Western Center for Journalism, in a piece that reads as first-rate satire until you realize that it isn’t. In fact, the crux of the new Alabama law, which pertains to property rights and due process, barely rises to the level of hortatory, as Paul Horwitz, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Alabama, explained to Baggett of the Press-Register: “[I]t says that state and local government cannot do what they are already forbidden to do by the federal and state constitutions,” Horwitz said.
Both chambers of the Tennessee state legislature approved a resolution (HJR 587) similar to the Kansas measure. In Louisiana, state Representative Stuart Bishop (R) introduced in April HCR 89, a resolution to “recognize the destructive and insidious nature of United Nations Agenda 21.”
These measures have generated little attention in the mainstream press, and, maybe in part for that reason, there has been little in the way of organized pushback against the notion that sustainability is a destructive and insidious international conspiracy. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to sign the resolution. His spokesman said this was because joint resolutions are simply “position statements” of the legislature (local news outlets noted that he had apparently signed most or all previous resolutions) but emphasized that Haslam “doesn’t support Agenda 21.”
In Arizona, both houses of the state legislature approved legislation (SB 1507) to stop its state and local governments from adopting or implementing “the creed, doctrine, principles, or any tenet of the United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Statement of Principles for Sustainable Development” adopted at the 1992 conference. It also banned local governments from participation in ICLEI and other sustainability programs, including those associated with the federal President’s Council on Sustainable Development, established by President Clinton in 1993.
The state’s business community was alarmed and swung into action. But the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry kept its concerns under the radar, quietly lobbying legislators directly in a successful effort to stop the bill from reaching the governor’s desk. Spokesman Garrick Taylor told the Arizona Republic that the chamber was concerned about the bill’s potential impact on business in the state. But it didn’t hold any press conferences or put out any press releases or position papers on the subject.
Because of the low profile taken by most opponents of these efforts, and because most of these debates are playing out in places, such as state legislatures and local planning commission meeting rooms, that don’t drive national news, some designers and planners might be missing them. Most reports about anti-Agenda 21 efforts appear on conservative political web sites such as DeWeese’s or the one produced by the John Birch Society, or liberal ones such as Salon.com or Mother Jones.
Despite the entertaining weirdness of talk that a global conspiracy is set to strong-arm communities into adopting environmental regulations, it’s worth considering some of the concerns of Agenda 21 opponents, not least because the planning and design communities have ways of inadvertently aggravating those concerns.
“My main takeaway from all of this is that the buzzwords we all learn in school are awful,” Andrew Whittemore, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Texas, Arlington, told me. “They allow people to read things into situations that aren’t there. When people aren’t used to hearing phrases like ‘streetscape improvement plan,’ it can be a cue for conspiratorial thinking.” In February, Whittemore wrote on the Atlantic Cities web site that planners should focus less on denying that Agenda 21 is a conspiracy and more on trying to make debates about land use and sustainability productive.
Nathan Norris agrees. “I blame a lot of the current problems on the planning side,” he says. “They’re trying to do something good, but they don’t take the time to explain what they’re doing in a comprehensive way.” Norris, the director of implementation and advisory activities at PlaceMakers in Montgomery, Alabama, told me he had to diplomatically remove a colleague from the room during a planning project in Mississippi when the colleague’s eye rolling and other negative body language helped to accelerate a meeting’s degeneration into politics. “It took us an hour to get back to talking about substance,” he says.
After years of sluggish economic growth and flat or falling property values in a lot of communities, it shouldn’t be surprising that people are fearful of losing more ground, says Ken Stahl, a law professor at Chapman University and the director of its Environmental, Land Use, and Real Estate Law certificate program. He notes that the suburban, single-family-house type of lifestyle that many Agenda 21 opponents cherish has—ironically in the context of an antigovernment campaign—been made possible by lavish government subsidies for road building and home ownership.
“But I think it’s a good sign that Tea Party voters are becoming active in land use politics,” he told me. “Planners have always fantasized about activism at the meta level, but they seem befuddled when people are actually interested!”
That interest can be channeled usefully. I talked to Kirk Turner, the planning director for Chesterfield County, Virginia, after I read that a Tea Party group called the Virginia Campaign for Liberty was taking credit for defeating the county’s comprehensive growth plan.
He told me that the planning office staff and a steering committee made up of local residents reviewed and held meetings on a plan developed by a consultant. But at a board meeting to adopt the plan, a group of Tea Party activists came to object.
“It was disheartening,” says Turner. “In the previous election, growth management was a big issue. People wanted us to update the plan. But when we got to the public hearing, we had 38 or 39 speakers and only about three weren’t from the Tea Party.” The planning commission decided to rewrite the plan, making it easier to understand. “In retrospect,” says Turner, “I think this will result in a better plan. We’re taking the work the consultants and the steering committee did but writing a clearer, [simpler] document.”
The Gateway 1 project in Maine might be getting back on track, too. Don White, the chairman of its steering committee, told me that he and other volunteers have started meeting again. They’re developing an inventory of projects and applying for federal grants.
Evan Richert, the town planner for Orono, Maine, who was involved in Gateway 1, says: “We spent a lot of effort on concerns about crowding in town centers balanced with protecting the interests of rural landowners.” He believes the deep suspicion of the anti-Agenda 21 campaigners is a minority view. “I think this is a political moment that will pass. As the economy improves, people will be more concerned about their quality of life.”
Linda McIntyre edits the NOW section of LAM. she has also worked as an attorney in international trade law and policy.