Strategic regional planning? Others see “Green Tyranny”

Many people applaud the foresight of regional governments for addressing climate change and quality of life through strategic planning. Others, including the East Bay Tea Party, are crying foul. Does this group represent another shade of “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBYism), or an indication that regional planning is poorly understood by many of the people it affects?

This spring, during ten You Choose Bay Area workshops, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and other public and non-profit staff asked participants to prioritize various neighborhood qualities. The ranking of qualities such as “large backyards” and “less local traffic” will guide the new One Bay Area plan. During the final sessions in Contra Costa County, Berkeley, and Oakland, dozens of people from the East Bay Tea Party arrived intent to obstruct the process.

“Do you really think it’s constitutional for a regional government to tell people where they can live, how they can get around, and where they have to work?” one participant asked at the Berkeley meeting. Tea Party members and unaffiliated sympathizers argued that neither the participants nor the organizers had the right to impose, for example, restrictions on backyard size.

Rather than addressing these questions head-on, explaining how cities can use market-based zoning to incentivize private developers to make certain choices as they design new homes, organizers fell into a pattern of “please write that on your comment sheet” and “we have to move on.”

The Contra Costa County meeting was all but derailed by interruptions by Tea Party members, who later claimed this as a victory on their website. Note that personal voting systems made clear that only a minority of participants shared the Tea Party’s priorities.

Amidst the facilitators’ struggle to stay on schedule, some of the Tea Party’s questions suggested their concerns are based more in fear or misunderstanding than insurmountable animosity.

Repeatedly, individuals expressed concern that “preserving open space” meant taking privately owned land.

“You want the government to set a priority of telling people how they can use their property? Is that what you’re saying… We’re voting for the government to be able to take over a person’s property?”

The facilitator responded: “This is really not a policy setting session, this is about learning what’s important to you, so let’s leave the policy making session to later parts of the workshop,” before moving on.

Several people took issue with the option to “export new homes,” a phrase that the organizers used to indicate building new suburban neighborhoods in currently undeveloped land. Many people interpreted this phrasing to mean that people would be forcibly relocated to create density in urban areas.

“The sustainable-communities strategy is not about moving people,” replied Miriam Chion, a planner with ABAG. “It’s about addressing development challenges.”

If the Tea Party was guilty of obstruction, the You Choose organizers were guilty of neglecting to address signs of fear. If you believed the government was trying to take your home away from you, would “addressing development challenges” make you feel better?

The Tea Party called out the You Choose organizers, and city planning in general, for failing to clearly explain how the process works. In my own experiences as a planner, I’ll be the first to admit that planners can focus more on discussing what they hope to accomplish than how they intend to accomplish it.

The East Bay Tea Party and its national partners are more comfortable verbalizing both their goals and strategies. The Freedom Advocates, based in a Santa Cruz, explain the nefarious techniques of community planning workshops in a guidebook titled “Understanding Sustainable Development”:

The project of a stakeholder council, often called a “consensus statement” or a “vision statement,” is typically approved by local governments without question, requiring citizens to submit to the questionable conclusion of a non-elected regional authority that is not accountable to the voters…

It is not the facilitator’s job to make sure that all views are entered into the record. His job, instead, is to guide the group to arrive at consensus on the project… Tactics vary between the facilitators, but consensus generally is reached by using subtle means to marginalize opposition, such as recording only the “good” ideas, and allowing criticism only for the “bad” ideas.

Pam Farly discusses these techniques further on the East Bay Tea Party website: “If anyone in the meeting raised a question about financial costs or clarification, they were met with typical Delphi methods to try to shut them down. These include, but are not limited to: Verbal abuse, intimidation by staffers and audience shills, ridicule, name calling, and more.”

The Freedom Advocates are part of a national dialogue linking sustainable development (“anti-human programs“), Smart Growth (“Orwellian“), and the United Nation’s International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (“stack ‘em and pack ‘em housing”) to the erosion of personal freedom.

The Tea Party regards the United Nation’s Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action to reduce human impacts on the environment, as the guiding document of this global movement to restrict liberty under the guise of sustainability. Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes handed his Democratic opponent victory last year after linking bike lanes to a Socialist “U.N. plot.” Most observers, such as Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post called Maes “deeply, unquenchably crazy,” rather than addressing the underlying concerns.

For every gubernatorial candidate that challenges a sustainability project, how many private individuals quietly share the same concerns? Disputes over Bus Rapid Transit in Berkeley, bike lanes in Brooklyn, and wind farms in Cape Code show opposition to “green development” is alive and well throughout the country.

The East Bay Tea Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Heather Gass recorded her experience from the Contra Costa You Choose meeting on the group’s website. Calling it a “great day for freedom” and a “fake visioning meeting” Gass lays out her opposition to any modification to the current suburban model.

Their plan for the future is to “stack and pack” housing near mass transit so we the people are not a burden on our environment by breathing and emitting CO2 from our cars. They want to limit building to existing urban growth boundaries, which are arbitrarily set by City Councils. They base their utopian model on high density housing with shops underneath, no parking, but lots of bicycles and walking (?????)

What these people don’t seem to understand is that people move to the Suburbs to get away from this type of Urban lifestyle. As a realtor I see this every day. Young earth minded eco-friendly brain-washed urbanites that have recently had kids and suddenly realize San Francisco is NO place to raise kids… When I was 20/30 I felt the same way, but once you have kids you are forced to stop being selfish and to think about your child’s welfare and not just your own. That is why most of the transplant urbanites come to the suburbs of Contra Costa County. They know that we have great schools and freedoms not found in the city. The freedom to get in your car and take your kid to Karate, Soccer, Little League, Ballet or Spanish class and park right in front while you wait for an hour or two bored out of your skull, but loving it because that is what’s best for your child. The last thing these warrior moms are thinking about is CO2 emissions and carbon footprints.

In today’s polarized discussion, Gass’ post could be taught by sustainable development advocates as an introduction to “the other side.” Its lessons are clear: take the time to explain how planning and zoning work, offer a broad range of options, and if necessary, be ready to discuss options from all points of view. If sitting in a car for two hours outside soccer practice is acceptable, ask if participants to consider the public cost of building and maintaining suburban infrastructure.

Regardless, Alvarado is encouraged by the presence of the Tea Party at these meetings, because more people are taking an interest in the decisions that affect their communities:

“We got some individuals to the table and we heard a wide range of discussion. We aren’t expecting everyone to be in agreement with what’s being planned. We’re trying to get individuals to start thinking about it and hopefully continue working with us in the project. We have some time. We don’t actually adopt this until 2013… we’re hoping that we can set up a workshop to give people adequate time to speak.”

The You Choose process will return in the fall with analyses on the scenarios chosen by the majority of workshop participants. Organizers will again engage the public in the regional plan. Audience members may continue to believe this plan will remove people from their homes, and Gass may continue defining dependence on automobiles as freedom. But is it crazy to distrust a process you don’t understand, especially when your questions are deflected to keep a schedule?

Fortunately, there will be more opportunities for teaching moments.

Expect more comprehensive planning projects like You Choose. Strategic plans are cheaper to implement than unbridled growth, and plans backed by public outreach are more competitive for external funding. As more agencies and consultants are peppered with questions by groups like the East Bay Tea Party, will they write off what they hear as NIMBYism? Or will they recognize that the case for sustainable development has not yet been proven, and look for more effective avenues to engage the public?

In any case, planners better hold onto those electronic voting systems.

*Top photo by Ruth Miller

*Understanding Sustainable Development available from Freedom Advocates website

Profile photo of Ruth Miller About Ruth Miller

Ruth Miller is a transportation student, reporter, writer, activist in Oakland, California. She prefers two feet to four wheels.

Ruth's approach to urban planning stems as much from her childhood in a small but rapidly suburbanizing Georgia town as her data driven undergraduate degree from MIT. Put simply:

"The best solution isn't necessarily the one that has the better numbers. A plan with excellent engineering can still sit on a shelf if it doesn't have the support of the community it affects."

As an undergraduate at MIT, Ruth surveyed 22,000 households in rural/suburban Georgia about their public transportation preferences. Afterward, she designed a combination on-call/commuter service to meet the community preferences, while capitalizing on the community's dual status as both "urban" and "rural" by the definitions of different funding agencies.

Now living in Oakland, Ruth is a student of the University of California at Berkeley's Masters of City Planning Program. Outside of class, Ruth uses her audiences at the Oakland Local news site and San Francisco Streetsblog to shine a light on often progressive but occasionally stagnant city, county, and state transportation agencies.

When she's not translating esoteric zoning codes into English or live-tweeting public meetings, she's out walking.

Follow her at @mcplanner, or read more on her website,


  1. Welcome Ruth,

    Wonderful piece. It kept reminding me of many community initiatives whose proponents never understood the difference between lecture and educate. The opportunities are plentiful, but either through process, plan or commitment they all too often go unrealized.

    I look forward to your next contribution.

  2. Thanks, Ruth. Your article shows great insight into the regional planning process. I’m with you, that any input is good input and there really is a silent majority out there that does not have time or enough understanding to attend planning meetings. The fact that the Tea Partiers look at planning as a means of taking away personal liberties means they are at least thinking about it. At a minimum, they’re engaging in the process.

    I believe San Diego is the first region to prepare their Sustainable Communities Strategy. The comment period is just closing now. While SANDAG held many workshops, i’m not sure they ever got that soccer mom/dad who shuttles the kids everywhere and waits in the parking lot for 2 hours. Sustainable what?

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