This story is presented by Southern Poverty Law Center.

Agenda of Fear

The Right-Wing Threat to Urban Planning Everywhere

Story by Don Terry

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

Published on Feb 24, 2014

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Zoning had never been particularly controversial business in Baldwin County, Ala. A fast-growing county right across the bay from the office towers of Mobile, Baldwin was the sort of place where local officials voted on projects and then went out for oysters.

Two years ago, that changed. On November 16, 2012, the county’s entire nine-member Planning and Zoning Commission quit in protest over an ongoing war on smart growth and anti-sprawl initiatives.

The mass resignation was a drastic decision for the men and women on the commission. These were not radical environmentalists, although one was a registered forester. They were respected locals who had put in hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer hours trying to help guide and manage the explosive growth of Alabama’s largest county. Among them were a certified public accountant, a real estate appraiser, a grant consultant for rural communities and two retired military officers, one of whom is the second highest-ranking official in the Alabama Republican Party.

But that August the Baldwin County Commission, which oversees the sprawling county by the sea, rescinded the Planning and Zoning Commission’s masterwork, a comprehensive development plan known as Horizon 2025. The plan was killed, according to the group letter of resignation, “on a pretext so devoid of relevance and merit as, in our opinion, to elicit only ridicule on the part of any serious knowledgeable observer.”

The pretext was Agenda 21.

Unless you follow Glenn Beck or frequent far-right websites, you probably have no idea that Agenda 21 is considered a grave threat to truth, justice and the American Way. (And, apparently, to life in Baldwin County.) Odds are good that you, like most people, have never read a word of the 22-year-old, 100-plus-page document.

Agenda 21 is a nonbinding UN resolution — that is, a proposal or global guide — designed to encourage nations to use fewer natural resources, conserve open land and pursue more sustainable development patterns. It was passed and signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit by more than 170 world leaders, including President George H.W. Bush. The resolution is anathema to many on the far right, including Tea Party activists, who do not believe in manmade climate change and bitterly oppose government having a say over what happens on private land.

“This battle is more than just planning,” Baldwin County Commission Chair Robert James said on the day of the vote that killed Horizon 2025. “This is to protect the Constitution of the United States and what’s in it and, to me, even the Ten Commandments that God gave us.”

Whatever you think of James’ opinion, one thing is inarguably true: The battle of Baldwin County was about far more than containing sprawl in coastal Alabama. In recent years, Agenda 21 has become an effective rallying cry used by right-wing groups to beat back everything from bike paths to smart meters on home appliances. The attacks have caught city councils, planning commissions and smart-growth advocates across the country off guard, leaving them scrambling to mount a defense. Collateral damage to date includes a light rail system in Tampa, Fla., a federal “blueway” program that would have protected rivers, and a road improvement project in Maine.

“Agenda 21 has become a very effective device in the portraying of environmentalism or any kind of environmental regulation as a conspiracy that needs to be stopped,” says Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard and co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

Skocpol was at a local Tea Party chapter meeting in Gloucester County, Va. when she first heard Agenda 21 characterized as a threat to the American way of life. An audience of about 70 local conservatives listened as a speaker invited from the national Tea Party circuit explained the then-obscure UN resolution. “She called it a decades-long conspiracy to impose communism on America through environmental regulation,” Skocpol recalls. “The speaker was calling on people to go to the local planning board and commission meetings, go to the legislature and stop any sort of sustainable planning.”

The fears spurred by Agenda 21 plug into more than a century of far-right worries about any international body imposing any kind of control on the U.S. The tactics used are as old as McCarthyism. In attacking the Baldwin County comprehensive plan, James invoked the names of Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Mussolini, and how their “plans, guides, outlines” resulted in the deaths of millions of people.

While the rhetoric in this ideological war has ballooned out of proportion, there are dire implications not just for environmentalists, transit riders and transportation or smart growth activists, but everyone who lives in America’s metropolitan regions.The anti-Agenda 21 movement poses a threat to the very notion of managing growth and development.

A Sudden Politicization

For years, the Planning and Zoning Commission tried to get a handle on the Baldwin County’s explosive growth. Retirees were flooding in to take advantage of the miles of sandy white beaches, piney woods, warm weather and relatively low cost of living here on the Gulf of Mexico. Young families also flocked to Baldwin, clogging the roads and causeways as they commuted back and forth to Mobile for work. From 1990 to 2000, the county experienced a 42.9 percent increase in its population. Meanwhile, subdivisions popped up everywhere, with little consideration given to how the many projects fit within each other, the environment and the future.

“There was no control over development,” says Arthur C. Dyas, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission for 16 years, the last few as chair. “It was a train wreck.”

There was so much development, going up so fast, that Planning and Zoning Commission meetings would sometimes start at six o’clock in the evening and end at four the next morning. Next, the meetings were split in two: Subdivisions on the first Thursday of the month, zoning on the third. “Hell, we were still going from six until midnight, one o’clock,” Dyas says. “It was unbelievable.”

In 2009, after days of public hearings held by the Planning and Zoning Commission, thousands of man-hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Baldwin County Commission adopted Horizon 2025 by a 3-1 vote. Laying out a revised framework for improving roads, developing housing and conserving some coastal areas, the plan was hardly radical.

“The comprehensive plan was just that — a plan,” Dyas says. “It was not a law. It was not an ordinance. It was a plan, something to use as a guide in future development of a given area.”

The following year, the Planning and Zoning Department was awarded the Alabama Chapter of the American Planning Association’s 2010 Outstanding Planning Award for Horizon 2025. In its newsletter, the chapter praised the plan for adding “stability” as well as “environmental and livability concerns” into the development process.

“There is now a guide for where development can be located, how it can be developed and its best and most compatible uses,” APA wrote.

By then the recession had swept across the country and development projects from Maine to California to Baldwin County came to a screeching halt. Bulldozers sat still and silent in the Alabama sun. Planning and zoning meetings went back to once a month. At some meetings there were no items on the agenda. One meeting lasted a record six minutes. “That’s how fast it tanked down here,” Dyas says. “So, the plan really never had a chance to be fully implemented into the process here in Baldwin County.”

The sudden politicization of the nascent plan came as a surprise to the former commissioner. Dyas had not heard of Agenda 21 before local officials began raising concerns about its influence. “Our plan had nothing to do with Agenda 21,” he says. “I called one of the county commissioners on it and he just about shouted me down. By God, this was all about Agenda 21 and the United Nations. And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

How it happened that fringe opposition to a decades-old UN resolution came to determine the plan for development in Baldwin County reveals much about the shifting dynamics of local planning.

The anti-Agenda 21 movement poses a threat to the very notion of managing growth and development.

In an age when so much information is online and a tap of the keyboard can let anyone into the latest policy debate happening anywhere in the world, professional activists hold a new power to insert their voices into local affairs. Glenn Beck may blast his opinion about a planned light rail line in your city before you even have an opinion. What this means is that decisions once made using a pragmatic logic have now become partisan and highly ideological. Fiorello LaGuardia’s famous saying, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” may no longer hold true.

“There’s always been people on the other side, but what‘s different with this is the viral, nasty nature of the opposition,” says Christopher Coes, managing director for Smart Growth America’s national network of real estate developers and investors. “Instead of the opposition being about one project, it becomes about conspiracies and black helicopters.”

Alabama was a proving ground for the anti-Agenda 21 movement even before Horizon 2025. In June 2012, Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation forbidding policies “traceable” to Agenda 21 and barring any taking of private property without due process. In essence, the law made it possible to argue the illegality of any environmentally conscious planning or regulatory measure in the state.

“Agenda 21 was the Trojan horse,” Coes says.

“Americans That Kept Their Blinders On”

Ken Freeman is one of the political gadflies on the Agenda 21 beat. The chair of an organization called Alliance for Citizens Rights, he drove six hours from his home in northern Alabama to plead with Baldwin County’s commissioners to rescind Horizon 2025. His job, he explains, is traveling the state to translate complicated issues like the Baldwin plan into simpler terms, or “Bubba Talk.”

For example, Freeman says the black helicopters people always talk about aren’t actually black. “They’re green with black numbers on them,” he says.

“There must be a lot of black helicopters these days,” he continues, because earlier that spring the Republican National Party drew up “a very strong anti-Agenda 21 resolution.” (A watered-down version of that resolution was eventually included in the party platform for the 2012 presidential election.)

“We’ve got black helicopter people everywhere,” Freeman says.

In the days leading up to the meeting over Horizon 2025 in Baldwin County, fliers were distributed warning of a “massive land grab.” More than 30 people signed up to speak. Some carried small American flags. Most wanted to see the plan killed.

Craig Skaggs, a retired lobbyist for DuPont, was one of the few to speak in support of retaining the plan. Skaggs called the state’s anti-Agenda 21 legislation “needless” and the attacks on Horizon 2025 “pure poppycock,” following “the lead of the conspiracy theories at the Wisconsin-based John Birch Society.”

“Do we really want,” Skaggs asked, “rampant growth based on only the changing political whims of county commissions or greedy land interests that often control our politicians?”

Ricky Richardson of Fairhope, Ala., on the other hand, said that Agenda 21 and Horizon 2025 are “duplicate.” He worried about “Americans that kept their blinders on, and when they were marching them into the rail cars they still didn’t understand what had happened to them.”

Richardson said he applauded the Baldwin County Commission for “being on top of this and realizing that this is a movement coming from a global initiative and being promoted through local government.” He left the podium to sustained applause.

Boyd Little and his wife Catherine took the podium and told the meeting that they opposed the comprehensive plan “because we really don’t understand what all is taking place with it.” Little’s neighbor, a blind farmer named Arthur Frego, Jr. said he also did not understand the plan and warned that if “this magnificent maze of paperwork goes through, it’s going to be mandatory.”

“And instead of the old reading, writing and arithmetic you were taught in school,” Frego went on, “it’ll be rules, regulations and restrictions.”

Another speaker compared Horizon 2025 to The Communist Manifesto and pointed out that Karl Marx’s handiwork was supposed to be merely a guide, too. “Can the plan,” he urged. “It’s draconian. Can that baby.”

Before the final vote was taken to “repeal, rescind and void” Horizon 2025, James, the county commission chair, looked out at the audience. “This is just a start,” he said. “You need to stay involved. It’s important. And it’s nice to come here today and see so many people that have that passion. But use that passion for more than just this one issue.”

Then the plan was killed. The audience cheered and filled the room with a warbled version of “God Bless America.”

“I called one of the county commissioners on it and he just about shouted me down. By God, this was all about Agenda 21 and the United Nations. And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Since the death of Horizon 2025, Baldwin County has become a sort of Rorschach test. For those who believe Agenda 21 means the beginning of the end for American freedoms from property rights to gun ownership, it was a triumph of the will of the people. To people like Cara Smallwood, one of the planning commissioners who resigned, what happened that day in Bay Minette was “simply crazy.”

“I felt we were being demonized by the county commission,” Smallwood says. “They were beating the scary government drum. It’s the age of the Tea Party — all government is bad. That’s why they threw an amazing, award-winning plan into the trash.”

For Coes, the managing director at Smart Growth America, the battle in Baldwin County isn’t over. He says that people like Smallwood must continue to educate their neighbors and elected officials about what, exactly, sustainable development is.

“It’s an ongoing process, “ Coes says. “At first, the local planners were caught flat-footed. They didn’t know how to respond. But over time, people begin talking and working together and in my mind, it’s a net positive. Local planners have learned that they must engage with their communities, explain what they are doing, and the goals and benefits.”

As evidence of a growing bipartisan consensus, he points to Missouri and Florida, where anti-Agenda 21 laws were defeated after non-Tea Party Republicans joined Democrats in opposing legislation.

“Conservatives, the business community [and] your non-traditional allies began to speak clearly that this was not what we need,” Coes says. “We begin to see that as we broaden the discussion, the political climate changes. At the end of the day, smart growth is not a partisan issue and we can’t allow it to become one.”

Ariella Cohen contributed reporting to this story.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Don Terry is a senior writer at the Southern Poverty Law Center and has previously worked for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times, where he was part of a team of journalists awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”