The scene in Maine is repeating itself across the country. Only sometimes the activists are less polite. One planning consultant I spoke with, who requested anonymity, recalled a recent meeting where he was on the receiving end of tea party rage. "I got called a communist," he says. Someone in another tea party-heavy area recently told him, "We don't need none of that smart growth communism." The people he's been encountering are new to the process, short on solid facts, and many are "spitting mad." Combined with what they see as an "elitist" bent in planning consultants, he says, it makes for a toxic and intimidating mix for local officials who aren't used to being accosted by conspiracy theory wielding activists.
The local planning fights reveal a little-understood characteristic of the tea party movement: its inherently suburban nature. Not only does the movement's agenda derive from a hostility to what it sees as elites, but it's also hostile to the places those elites live—namely, cities and more densely populated areas—which makes sustainable development a natural issue for activists. Call them the newest pro-sprawl lobby.
In Virginia, Holt is trying to whip up tea party opposition to a comprehensive development plan being drafted in Chesterfield County, where she lives near Richmond. She believes such plans will, among other things, ban cul de sacs, and she happens to live on one. So far, though, she hasn't made much progress with the county. "They don't want to hear from us," she says. "They think we are wackos with tinfoil hats."
Indeed, while the UN conspiracy talk makes it easy to dismiss the tea partiers as nutters, that doesn't mean they won't derail local development projects. Take what transpired recently in Tampa, Florida, where tea party activists helped defeat a widely supported measure that would have funded light rail and road improvements in Hillsborough County. In the lead-up to a ballot initiative on the penny-per-dollar sales tax increase to fund the project, the local conservative paper, the Tampa Bay Examiner, ran a series on Agenda 21 plus commentary suggesting that the "smart growth" principles underlying the light rail proposal were simply "cover for an agenda to transfer American sovereignty to various tentacles of the United Nations."
And the Florida tea partiers are just getting started. The Tampa 912 project, which often works in tandem with tea party groups, organized members over the summer to attend project briefings on another transportation plan for high-speed rail in the state. After a July meeting, the group's chairman reported back on the powwow with great skepticism. She said supporters claimed that:
the high speed rail project will conserve 1 million acres of environmental lands and cause 44% less land to be consumed. How does a train running down the middle of I-4 do all that? The answer is by "compact development" aka "smart growth", aka "New Urbanism", aka "Traditional Neighborhood Design", aka "Transit Oriented Development", aka "Livable Communities", aka "Sustainable Development." These are all names meaning the same thing: they are anti-suburban, high-density dwelling design concepts that are part of the UN's Agenda 21 and will make single family home ownership for our posterity unattainable.
In Florida, the tea partiers have had some help in such fights from Ed Braddy, the executive director of the American Dream Coalition, which opposes smart growth and other standard components of modern land-use planning. Braddy, who has dubbed cars "personal mobility machines," has become a popular speaker on the tea party circuit. A former Gainesville city commissioner, he believes the rail fight in Florida, along with the involvement of the tea partiers on sustainable development issues, is the wave of the future.
"The tea party is receptive to our argument," he says. Regardless of whether people believe that Agenda 21 is a UN plot (he doesn't), tea partiers recognize the evils of sustainable development. "It's almost an instinctive thing," he says. "People know that living in a suburban development and driving to work is not an inherently bad thing. Living in a tiny cramped apartment surrounded by noises, so you can hop a bus is not intrinsically superior. "
When the tea partiers bring that perspective to local government, they have the potential to make a significant impact—far more than they might have on, say, a congressional health care bill where high-paid lobbyists dominate. It’s clear that they are starting to realize that, too.
A condensed version of this article appeared in the March/April 2011 Issue of Mother Jones magazine.