The Tea Party might have reached a plateau in terms of national politics, but activists are alive and well at the level of local government. And their tactics are giving municipal officials fits. Across the country, Tea Party activists have been storming planning meetings of all kinds, opposing various plans by local and regional government having anything to do with density, smart growth, sustainability or urbanism. In California, Tea Party activists gained enough signatures for a ballot measure repealing the state’s baseline environmental regulations, while also targeting the Senate Bill 375, the 2008 law that seeks to combat climate change by promoting density and regional planning. Florida’s growth management legislation was recently undone, and activists in Tampa helped turn away funding for rail projects there. A planning agency in Virginia had to move to a larger auditorium and ban applause, after Tea Party activists sought to derail a five-year comprehensive plan and force withdrawal from the U.S. Mayors Agreement on Climate Change.
The activists are opposed to proposed master plans, a new water treatment plant, rules governing septic tanks, or a bike-sharing program. At the core is a belief that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights. Oddly, this opposition carries with it in almost all instances a charge that local planners are part of a conspiracy driven by the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a nearly two-decade old document that addresses sustainable development in the world’s cities – but that is being interpreted as a call to herd humanity into compulsory habitation zones.
We have had our own experiences along these lines, and in the fall, heard from Robin Rather, who runs Collective Strength out of Austin, on how to respond and engage with this new phenomenon, at our annual gathering of Big City Planners, co-sponsored with Harvard and the American Planning Association. The APA has retained Rather and others to offer a "communications boot camp" for planners, hoping to reframe the profession’s value-add for society. The full essay on this topic is available for viewing at Atlantic Cities.