Local communities face onslaught from self-anointed planners

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April 25, 2014

A growing number of initiatives by elitist organizations, working hand-in-glove with local kindred spirits, is transforming once-self-governing communities into instruments of environmental political correctness.

Cloaked in the mantle of providing for “sustainable” or “livable” communities, these programs include such fashionable ideas as “open space,” “heritage areas,” “view sheds,” ”smart growth,” “clean energy,” and “combating climate change,” – just to name a few.

What was once largely the domain of far-away UN conferences and obscure academic journals has now made its way to Main Street. Planning commissions, which have spread like wildfire over the past couple of decades and whose members are unelected, produce an endless array of schemes designed to micro-manage every aspect of commercial, residential, and recreational life. No town, no matter how small, is safe from the meddling of planners in and outside of government.

The Shadow of Agenda 21

The proliferation of efforts by green elites to mold communities in their own image is a consequence of the rise of the environmental movement – both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Those efforts received a substantial boost with the adoption of something called Agenda 21 at the conclusion of the June 3-14, 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment & Development in Rio de Janeiro. Agenda 21 is described by the UN Division on Sustainable Development as “a comprehensive plan of development to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the United Nations Systems, Governments and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts (sic) on the environment.”

A 300-page document divided into 40 chapters, Agenda 21 has many goals, including changing consumption patterns, conserving biological diversity, protecting fragile environments and the atmosphere, and achieving more sustainable settlements. Agenda 21 provides a blueprint for the kinds of structural changes the proponents of sustainable development (a term left purposely vague) want to see take place.

Merely setting goals, however, was not enough; the task of implementing Agenda 21 fell to another UN body, the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). Founded in 1990, ICLEI is an association of local and regional governments as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – all sharing a commitment to sustainable development. ICLEI’s membership currently numbers over 1200 cities, towns, counties, and NGOs in 84 countries. In the United States, 528 cities belong to ICLEI, including New York, Los Angeles, Dubuque, Iowa, and Arlington, Texas.

ICLEI’s U.S. website, www.icleius.org, informs its visitors that $618 million in funding for grants and technical assistance is available for state, local, and tribal governments. The largess comes courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Energy, Interior, and Transportation and is be used for climate and energy initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Lest they have any doubts about the organization’s commitment to combatting climate change, visitors also can read about ICLEI’s new emissions-management software.

Another organization spreading the gospel of sustainable development is the appropriately named American Planning Association (APA). Founded in 1978, APA provided a ready-made vehicle for taking the goals of Agenda 21 to the local level. A forum for the exchange of views and proposals among urban and regional planners of every description, APA has state chapters throughout the country. In addition to its well-attended conferences, APA uses its website, www.planning.org, to get the message out. Its website, for example, touts the virtues of solar power and bike-sharing as ways communities can reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

When such “lofty” goals are adopted by local governments, they have real-world consequences for those on the receiving end of the elitists’ grand vision. Open space in a case in point. Thomas Sowell, senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, notes that open space comes at an enormous cost to perspective homeowners and those seeking affordable apartments to rent. “What that lovely phrase means is that there are vast amounts of empty land where the law forbids anybody from building anything,” he says. “Anybody who has taken Economics 101 knows that preventing the supply from rising to meet demand means that prices are going to rise,” he explains. “Housing is no exception.” (Washington Times, April 23, 2014)

The “Plantocracy”

Indeed, all across the country, the lives of ordinary citizens are under siege by the grandiose schemes of what we will call the “plantocracy.” Consider:

In Ohio, the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission (MVRPC) teamed up with the Montgomery County Commission, the Washington Township Board, and an assortment of NGO “stakeholders” to have a bike path added to a road-widening project. The bike path comes within seven feet of the front door of a local resident’s 164-year-old farm house. In July 2013, bulldozers flattened hedges and trees in front of the historic farm house to make way for the bike path. The owner of the property protested vehemently, but to no avail. An official with the MVRPC justified the bike path and the destruction to private property it wrought by saying, “Doing so reduces the amount of carbon and harmful emissions into the atmosphere so that our air is cleaner.” (Range, Winter 2013-14)
In Washington, a bill, HB 2386, introduced in the legislature would create the State Maritime Heritage Area that would include “all federal, state, local, and tribal lands that allow public access and are partly located within one-quarter mile land inward of the saltwater shoreline (of the Pacific Ocean)…” Language in the bill assures the public that nothing in the legislation “creates any regulatory jurisdiction or grants any regulatory authority to any government or other entity” or “abridges the rights of any owner of public or private property within the designated area,” or “established any legal rights or obligations, including in regards to any environmental or administrative review process involving land use.” Opponents of the legislation ask why, if the designation is so benign, does Maryland have a 19-member Maryland Heritage Authority and a 10-member board appointed by the governor to oversee the state’s heritage areas. The question is a reflection of the well-founded mistrust of such schemes on the part of ordinary citizens.
In Isle of Wight County, Virginia, local officials are trying to prohibit a farmer from allowing a disable friend from staying overnight on his property in an RV. County officials claim that the use of the RV constitutes an unauthorized “campground” in violation of local zoning ordinances. “Cases such as this one are becoming increasingly common across the country as overzealous government officials routinely enforce laws that undermine the very property rights that are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution,” says John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute.

Defenders of Agenda 21 and ICLEI are quick to point out that they have no regulatory authority and cannot enforce any of their recommendations. That’s true. But once the genie is out of the bottle and finds its way into the rules, regulations, ordinances, “green” building codes, and land-use restrictions of local governments, what comes out does have the force of law behind it. The plantocracy, with all the interlocking relationships it has with well-funded and well-connected interests, is a beast that is roaming the countryside searching for its next prey.