DO TRASH receptacles and sidewalks have an ideology? How about zoning overlays, watershed development, and tree pruning? These are the kinds of issues that animate local planning boards, those temples of wonkery and reheated coffee that produce acronym-laden reports on parochial community concerns. But to an increasingly vocal group of activists, your local planning board is in fact a cell of hidden conspiracies to undermine US freedom and sovereignty and create a system of one-world government.
At the center of this purported global threat, not surprisingly, is the United Nations, which in 1992 put forward a non-binding agreement known as Agenda 21, committing the 178 signatory countries to goals of sustainable development and conservation of land and energy resources. That known radical, then-president George H. W. Bush, signed up the United States.
Just as Tea Party activists crashed congressional town meetings in the summer of 2010 to oppose universal healthcare, so now are antigovernment “liberty groups” hijacking local planning board meetings from Colorado to Texas to Ohio, to warn about Agenda 21 and stop communities from following its principles. Several counties have passed resolutions withdrawing participation in regional planning efforts, and some transit and energy conservation plans have been derailed amid claims that “the government will be telling you how hot your shower can be.” Last week in Rochester, N.H., the City Council voted 8-4 not to join the “Granite State Future” sustainable development plan, derided by opponents as “merely another name for Agenda 21 and their ‘Sustainable Growth’ policies.” In so doing the town forfeited its share of a $3.37 million federal planning grant.
What are the dark threats that lurk just over the picket fence? One website called Democrats Against UN Agenda 21 lists them: “redevelopment projects, bicycle boulevards, neighborhood summits, neighborhood elections, neighborhood revitalization projects, neighborhood stabilization projects, visioning, local boards, smart growth projects . . . ” and more. These are code words, opponents say, for the erosion of personal liberty. Smart electric and gas meters, in this view, are a government ruse to spy on citizens, and the first step toward “the elimination of national sovereignty and the creation of a seamless system for global governance.”
It may be tempting to dismiss all this as a fringe movement, but it has been rapidly gaining adherents. This year, the black-helicopter set made common cause with Tea Party activists concerned about an over-reaching government, and more mainstream politicians are taking notice. The national Republican Party officially adopted an anti-Agenda 21 plank in its platform last month. “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty, and we oppose any form of UN Global Tax,” it reads.
Opposition to meddling planning boards may tap into a deep vein of suspicion about government regulation — that any kind of zoning puts restrictions on private property is therefore a “land taking.” But one has to wonder how many droning planning board meetings these folks have actually attended. It’s more likely the communards would fall asleep in the powdered doughnuts before they could ever rouse themselves enough to seize their neighbors’ polluting gas grills.
As with most conspiracies, though, anything seen through a dark lens can appear vaguely Orwellian: “traffic calming,” “the New Urbanism,” “smart growth.” Scary! One of the favorite targets of Agenda 21 opponents is ICLEI — the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Activists tote signs to demonstrations reading “Kick ICLEI out!”
But Boston and some 38 other Massachusetts communities are members of ICLEI, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino was one of the first to join, in 2000. The city has received millions in federal grants to implement a climate action plan designed to boost energy efficiency for Boston homes and businesses; ICLEI just provides the technical training and data tools to get there.
It is a measure of our polarized politics that the Republican Party has been invaded by, or at least influenced by, a group that demonizes bike paths and recycling — practical ideas that shouldn’t be partisan at all. It’s time to stop laughing off the liberty councils. Their angry, ill-informed protests are having a real effect, rolling back policies that make communities cleaner, more rational, more efficient, and more livable for every red-blooded American.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.