By James Chiltonjchilton@wyomingnews.com
But in recent years, a small but vocal contingent of citizens across the country - including here in Cheyenne - has begun to see a sinister side to those very ideas.
To them, terms like "smart growth" are really code for the eventual erosion of private property rights. They fear people in positions of power are colluding - some knowingly, some unwittingly - to convert America into a dystopian society: a land where private property is abolished, where people are forced into prescribed habitation zones, and where all natural resources are under the exclusive control of the government.
And they believe the lynchpin of this grotesque transformation of society is a little-known United Nations document called Agenda 21.
Agenda 21’s origins
In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush was one of more than 100 heads of state present in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations’ first-ever Conference on Environment and Development.
During the so-called “Earth Summit,” representatives from 178 sovereign governments signed onto Agenda 21, a 300-page, 40-chapter document. The U.N. describes it as “a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations system, governments, and major groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.”
The document was designed to encourage member nations to participate in measures to improve upon a broad swath of issues, including poverty, environmental sustainability, deforestation, preservation of biodiversity, and strengthening the societal role of women, youth and indigenous cultures around the globe.
Following the initial signing of Agenda 21, U.N. member nations twice affirmed their commitment to the agenda’s general goals, once in 2002 and again this year.
“Essentially, it was a document that talks about economic growth, quality of life and environmental protections,” said Patrick Madden, executive director for the United Nations Association of the United States of America. “It was essentially a blueprint (saying), ‘We know the population’s going to grow, our resources are going to become limited, and we need to address it. Here are all of the ideas that were discussed.’”
Madden stressed that Agenda 21 is not a treaty, nor is it legally binding. Rather, he said, it is a set of ideas for how countries can best address issues of future sustainability. Most importantly, he said, it is entirely voluntary, with implementation falling to local governments.
“It was a set of ideas to give countries a chance to talk about planning,” Madden said. “Every country was to take that back and ask, ‘How is this applicable to us?’ Twenty years later, some countries have made tremendous developments, some have done very little.”
Spreading the word
So when did Agenda 21 become a rallying cry echoing through council chambers and town halls around the country?
While the issue has only risen to the forefront in the past few years, Frank Smith said he’s been fighting against it since the beginning.
Smith, a Constitution Party candidate running for a four-year seat on the Laramie County Commission, said he first learned of Agenda 21 through the ultraconservative John Birch Society not long after the initial 1992 Rio conference. But he said he has pored over the document extensively since then and has come to some disturbing conclusions.
“I’ve been keyed into this, really, for 20 years,” Smith said. “It wasn’t until smart meters hit town three years ago that people (here) started to wake up to it.”
Smith said he sees implementation of Agenda 21 as a direct, albeit incremental, attack on private property rights. Using smart meters as an example, he said that while such devices are advertised as giving utility customers greater knowledge of and control over their energy use, they also have the potential of being used to directly control those customers’ access to power in an effort to force conservation upon them.
“New appliances have smart chips in them, and these meters can be shut off at the headquarters,” Smith said. “It also allows people to monitor your electric usage minute by minute. They want to n and this has not been proposed yet n if you’re using electricity between what the peak hours are, they want to surcharge you. It’s another way of controlling things and giving them the ability to spy on you.”
Smith likens Agenda 21 to a straightjacket slowly tightening around the American public, as local governments pass ordinances and laws aimed at putting new regulations and limitations into place.
“Every one of them has a bona fide reason to exist, but they all edge in,” he said. “This is what’s going on with government today. I’m not an anarchist by any stretch of the imagination; I understand you’ve got to avoid a Ford shop going in next to an old folks’ home. But the thing is, it never stops.”
Nowhere, he said, is this more evident in Cheyenne than in the City Council’s adoption of the Unified Development Code.
The Unified Development Code, or UDC, was approved unanimously by the Cheyenne City Council on Jan. 23, and went into effect on April 30. Cheyenne Planning Services Director Matt Ashby describes the UDC as a simplification of several previous city codes.
“What that was was the unification of three regulatory documents: the zoning code, the subdivision regulations, and the road and street standards,” Ashby said.
All three previous codes were drawn up at different times, and sometimes conflicted with one another over definitions or regulations. The idea behind the UDC, Ashby said, was to put all three together into one code without any of those contradictions.
“The purpose of unifying them was basically to improve the efficiency of government,” he said. “It reduced the whole document by about a third, eliminating redundancy and correcting inconsistencies.”
Ashby said the UDC is actually meant to make it easier for developers to get through the planning process. It also gives more flexibility to planning staff by allowing them to grant variances to developers that they might otherwise have to spend weeks appealing for.
“It’s providing flexibility for development patterns that previously weren’t allowed,” Ashby said. “We’ve got some things that were really difficult to do under the previous code that we’ve made easier because they meet the community’s vision.”
As an example, Ashby pointed to the historic Avenues neighborhood, which he said couldn’t have been built under the previous codes due to their strict regulations on things such as street widths or lot sizes. Under the UDC, however, he said developers have more leeway to build such neighborhoods, so long as they’re done in a way that makes sense from a planning perspective.
“The change to more of a suburban-type development pattern necessitated new types of rules that were somewhat in conflict with how a neighborhood like the Avenues was designed,” he said. “The approach we took with the Unified Development Code was to take all the different components and calibrate them so that they work together, and that any changes we make to one part of the code wouldn’t throw another part out of balance.”
Since the UDC passed, Ashby said, the number of variance requests from developers has dropped sharply from previous years, since they can now go directly through planning staff.
“So the UDC certainly isn’t stifling commercial development,” Ashby said. “We have found that a number of folks that hadn’t worked in Cheyenne before were able to walk through the code prior to any communication with staff and be about 85 to 90 percent correct (in understanding it). That certainly wasn’t possible before.”
But to Frank Smith, the implications of the UDC are obvious.
“When I saw the UDC in the paper, I thought, ‘Oh, this is cookie cutter,’” he said. “Once it got printed and I started reading it, I said, ‘This is right out of Agenda 21.’”
Smith said the process by which the UDC was adopted is typical of how Agenda 21 is implemented in communities across the country. While such initiatives generally include opportunities for the public to speak on them, he said such efforts are really just theater, meant to give the illusion of inclusive government.
“The basic blueprint is being brought in from the bottom up, rather than the top down,” he said. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, this is our plan.’ It’s giving you an illusion of a fair trial, so to speak, but the deck is stacked against you.”
But Tom Mason, director of the Cheyenne Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the UDC is the culmination of more than 20 years of back and forth between the city and its public stakeholders. He said the process dates back to 1989, when the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce launched Forum 1999, a community effort to determine how the city should grow and develop over the next decade.
The project, Mason said, included professional consultation, as well as telephone, newspaper and even high school surveys of the public to ask how they wanted to see Cheyenne grow and what kinds of amenities they wanted to see in the future.
“It got into community planning, how we wanted to grow, how much we wanted to grow, what was desired for recreation, environmental quality, city services,” Mason said. “Then came Vision 2020, which was done in 2001, 2002; and that got into housing and neighborhoods, growth of the community, downtown, economic development, parks and recreation … there were very large public input processes.”
Mason said many of the priority actions that resulted from Forum 1999 and Vision 2020 were later incorporated into PlanCheyenne, an integrated community master plan that attempts to define the Cheyenne area’s future based on what the people want.
Adopted in 2006, PlanCheyenne was funded, in part, through a metropolitan planning organization grant, federal money provided to cities with 50,000 residents or more to help them develop regional transportation plans that incorporate roads, freight, public transit and bicycle and pedestrian pathways, among others.
“That was the seed money, and with that we were able to develop a land-use and transportation plan,” Mason said. “The city threw in additional money for the parks plan, and the county also threw in additional money.
“We hired a consultant to do the work, and they again used the (public input from) Vision 2020,” Mason added. “There were numerous open houses asking the community to come in and talk to us about the plan.”
But Smith contends that grant money is simply the government’s way of encouraging cities to adopt portions of Agenda 21.
“You’ve got the (Environmental Protection Agency), (Housing and Urban Development) coming into communities to do public projects,” he said. “The idea is to throttle transportation, narrow the streets, get people out of their personal vehicles into mass transit. That may be wonderful in Philadelphia, but here in Wyoming?”
Smith’s concerns are not new to Jason Jordan. The American Planning Association’s director for policy and government affairs, Jordan said he’s seen this kind of talk popping up at planning meetings from Tulsa, Okla., to Phoenix, Ariz. during the past two years.
“It was amazing that while folks believe planners are these agents of implementation, the planners themselves had no idea what (Agenda 21) was, by and large,” he said. “Most of them, frankly, find it absurd that this is somehow driving local planning decisions. Planning and all the corresponding components are one of the most quintessentially local implements we have in government.”
But Jordan acknowledged that argument doesn’t convince many of Agenda 21’s detractors. Since fears of Agenda 21 began entering the public sphere around 2010, he said, the APA has worked with planning bodies around the country to try to defuse some of the tension by adjusting how planners frame the narrative.
Jordan said APA surveys have found that the vast majority of the American public still hasn’t heard of Agenda 21. In fact, fully 85 percent don’t know enough about it to say whether they support or oppose it. Of the remainder, only about 6 percent support Agenda 21, while about 8 percent are opposed to it.
But Jordan said that 8 percent can often feel like 80 percent to the city councils and planning commissions who find themselves suddenly confronted with a dozen people at one meeting, all sounding the alarm.
“In many communities, there’s sort of an over-response to the concerns that are raised,” he said. “So we’re trying to get the conversation as local as possible. We want people to talk specifically about what they want their community to look like as a way to pull people out of this destructive and counterproductive thought.”
Jordan said planners see the best results when they drill down into specific proposals. By aggressively engaging the public on specifics, he said, planning bodies can cut through the rhetoric and get to some common ground.
As an example of this sort of engagement, Jordan pointed to Wichita, Kan.
“They were going through a downtown planning process, and they got the critics. Folks who were concerned about the U.N. Agenda 21 business came out and became very disruptive,” he said. “So they sort of rebooted their process.”
Jordan said the planners realized that one of the things that united the public was their desire to keep young people in the community and their belief that a more vibrant downtown was a key to making that happen.
“Once people were able to agree on the underlying core values, then they were able to get past the rhetoric and deal with any individual component of the work,” Jordan said.
In another example, he said, planners in Tulsa reached out to a group of tea party activists n often the biggest opponents of Agenda 21 n who had been disruptive in the past and attempted to directly engage them.
“After a lot of effort of outreach, bringing them to the table, in a way forcing them to say what they believed the community should look like, they found that some of those activists remained engaged in the process and became a part of it,” Jordan said. “Once you are committed to engagement in the process, I think it’s harder to throw stones.”
Repeal the UDC?
For their part, Cheyenne city officials maintain that Agenda 21 has played no role in the development or adoption of the UDC. In fact, Mayor Rick Kaysen said he hadn’t even heard of it until about six months ago.
“The Unified Development Code was not thought up overnight. This is a multi-year review that got to the document that went into place on April 30,” Kaysen said. “People can draw conclusions and opinions, but when the UDC was designed, Agenda 21 was not part of the discussions. We went from Forum 1999 to Vision 2020 to PlanCheyenne with lots of public forums for input.”
Smith and others have been pushing to repeal the UDC in its entirety, but both Kaysen and Ashby believe doing so would be disastrous for the city and send the wrong message to the developers who will have to wrangle with the previous disparate codes.
“The process associated with (repealing the UDC) would really throw the growth of our community into complete chaos as far as not having a predictable way for projects to move from initial conception to actually getting built,” Ashby said. “That impacts business decisions; it impacts people’s everyday lives.”
“We would have to reinstate the three previous codes as they were,” Kaysen added. “We would have lost several years of ground, trying to be responsible from that development standpoint. If we want to stymie development, that’s what we would do.”
Kaysen said he has no qualms with revising the UDC as needed, adding that it was designed with a formal review process built in. Councilwoman Amber Ash, who is running for a four-year seat on the County Commission, has also spoken up in favor of reviewing the code, though she has rebuffed overtures from Smith to address Agenda 21.
“My reasons for revisiting it are not related to Agenda 21. I want to be really clear about that,” Ash said. “Agenda 21 calls for things like gender equality, free primary education, and those are things I’m a proponent of.”
Ash said her concerns over the UDC come from some of the increased costs developers say they’ve have had to face.
“I met with one developer. They’re looking at remodeling or adding four new buildings this coming year, and each one’s going to cost them about $200,000 more to build because of the new requirements under the UDC,” she said. “I think big businesses can absorb those costs, but little small mom-and-pop businesses n those costs can mean the difference between opening a business or not. That’s where I’m coming from.”
Both sides upset
Smith said Ash isn’t too far from his own thinking with regard to how he thinks the UDC n and by extension, Agenda 21 n seeks to shut out competition and relegate power to government and a handful of multinational corporations.
“I think the overarching thing is, societally, with the conglomerates in industry and retail, it’s kind of a centralization of distribution and economy, so your choice is going to be to work for the government, work for a big corporation or go on welfare,” Smith said. “People like me who have been self-employed are going to be out in the cold.”
But Smith said he was also disappointed in Ash for refusing to discuss Agenda 21 in addressing the UDC.
“When we started kicking up a fuss about all of this, Amber Ash came to M. Lee (Hasenauer, a tea party activist and Republican candidate for the County Commission) and I and said, ‘I can get this reopened on City Council if you can get some people to come before City Council,’” Smith said. “But her stipulation was that nobody was to come there and talk about Agenda 21, and I said, ‘No deal.’ Without tying Agenda 21 into the UDC, then we’re picking pieces out of the pepper.”
Smith maintains that full repeal of the UDC is the only acceptable means of thwarting Agenda 21’s encroachment in Cheyenne. But Jordan of the APA contends that the only real way to halt Agenda 21 is to get everyone to understand how municipal planning works n and, more importantly, how it doesn’t.
“I have a great deal of respect for anybody who wants to come into the public square and offer up their public opinion. That’s a foundation of good planning, and in no way am I demeaning the participation,” Jordan said.
“What I find very troubling, though, is because they’re afraid of this conspiracy, they’re willing to shut down participation from anyone else in the community. And that, to me, is the real threat to local democracy, to local decision-making.
“We want to get those folks who believe in planning, who believe in working together to build a future for their community to get involved so the local officials don’t feel overwhelmed by one-sided conversation,” he added. “Our hope and our goal is that this isn’t sustainable over time, and as planners get better at doing their job, as supporters of good planning do a better job at speaking to their local officials, that this can turn the temperature down in a productive way.”