Local Tea Party Activists Stump Planners

The Tea Party has stirred the pot in national politics, but apparently they’re also making their mark in local politics and land-use planning. Anthony Flint recently wrote a lengthy lament for the The Atlantic Cities (Dec 14, 2011) that pointed out how Tea Partiers are mucking up the process. Flint notes the irony that the Tea Party activists are actually taking a page from the activism of Jane Jacobs when she stood up to Robert Moses and his plans to put a highway through Greenwich Village in New York:

“So it is with particular angst that many of these same planners now are forced to reckon with the modern-day Jane Jacobs, at least in terms of tactics and a libertarian streak: the Tea Party.

“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.

“What’s prompting the ire is anything from a proposed master plan to a new water treatment plant, rules governing septic tanks, or a bike-sharing program. What’s driving the rebellion is a view that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights. And in almost all instances, the Tea Partiers link local planning efforts to the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a nearly two-decade old document that addresses sustainable development in the world’s cities — read as herding humanity into compulsory habitation zones.”

Ultimately, Flint sees the Tea Partiers as driven by conspiracy theorists who really don’t understand urban planning. Oddly, he cites a recent report by Ron Utt and Wendell Cox admonishing Tea Partiers to avoid tying their opposition to Smart Growth to the U.N.’s Agenda 21 because Smart Growth is largely a home-grown effort, not a global one, as evidence that the global conspiracy theorists are driving the anti-smart growth movement.

My read on local Tea Party activism is very different from Flint’s. In a blog post a before the November 2010 election (“Planning for Tea Parties), I noted that Tea Partiers are largely fiscal conservatives; they’re reacting to bloated government spending and overreach and using the political process to move politicians to reduce government. Many of these activists are not well informed about the local planning process, but this doesn’t make their concerns or complaints invalid. Moreover, just because they start from a ideological perspective that embraces a more limited government doesn’t mean that their criticisms are purely ideological. On the contrary, more than one non-ideologue has emerged from a public hearing or charette (a planning tool used to get public input on a project) believing that the end result was effectively rigged regardless of input from the general public.

Fortunately, some planners recognize that these home-grown critics of government overreach have valid concerns. Nathan Norris has a very insightful and practical blog post at “Placeshakers and Newsmakers” (Jan 6, 2012) on how practicing planners can work with local activists motivated by Tea Party issues. In short, Norris outlines a constructive four-step engagement process for professional planners. Planners should not dismiss Tea Party activists out of hand, and recognize they come from diverse perspectives. Planners should listen to their concerns, identify the issues that are most important to them, and engage them in the local decisionmaking process.

Many libertarians will continue to object to urban planning in principle, but at least Norris is laying out a strategy for making the process more productive, more inclusive and less ideological. This opens the door for reforms that might well advance the Tea Partiers political agenda, albeit incrementally. If they are able to infuse more transparency and accountability into the planning process, then everyone benefits. Just as Tea Party activists are not a monolithic bunch, neither are urban planners.