The Tea Party’s penchant for the supremacy of property rights, individual liberty, and climate change denial would seem a poor fit for liberal areas like the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet they have made major inroads by honing in on one issue that riles people in the Bay Area –opposition to development. When Bay Area regional agencies decided to stop supporting automobile-centric sprawl, and promote infill transit-oriented development instead, you’d think that people in this area would stand up and cheer. Instead they came out in droves to oppose these new directives – all organized and ginned up by the local Tea Party affiliates. This article looks at this phenomenon around the country and connects the dots from local opposition to much-needed affordable housing to the Tea Party Agenda 21 conspiracy theories and anti-green planning organizing efforts nationwide.
Where Tea Party Meets Far Left: The Fight against Green Planning
By Wendi Kallins and Chris McManus
Excerpted from LaMorinda Weekly:
Shocking. Rude. Embarrassing. Frightening. Just some of the adjectives uttered by residents of the City of Orinda following the early end to the city’s 2015-2023 Housing Element Community Workshop June 26, 2014.
The program began quietly with Jennifer Gastelum, local consultant, outlining the meeting’s purpose. But before she could explain the workshop’s format to those in the nearly full auditorium, she was interrupted by a handful of angry individuals who took turns standing and shouting. Some were members of Orinda Watch, a group which came out against the recent Measure J road improvement bond and, in 2013, accused city officials of working outside the full view of the public to update Orinda’s General Plan in order to bring high-density, low-income housing to Orinda. Seemingly determined to obstruct the proceedings, the protesters even shouted down other audience members who were calling for quiet so that the presentation could continue.
“I’m intimidated by the yelling,” said one resident who was willing to be quoted, but asked that her name not be used because she now fears for her physical safety. “I just came to find out what was going on.”
“I really wanted to know the truth,” said another who attended at the urging of a fellow dog walker because she’d been told government leaders were engaging in “political shenanigans.” Disappointed because she couldn’t hear the presenter and “appalled by the lack of decorum,” she hopes future workshops will be scheduled by the city.
These scenes are being repeated throughout the Bay Area, as vocal opposition to housing and transportation plans are organized by Bay Area Tea Party affiliates. But don’t tell that to the folks in liberal Marin County. They insist that they have nothing to do with the Tea Party despite the fact that their talking points mirror those from Tea Party web sites, their speakers come from the Reason Foundation and the Cato Institute – libertarian think tanks — and their tactics are inflammatory and disruptive, just like their tea party counterparts.
The fight, say the demonstrators, is for the soul of their communities. They are fighting against what they call stack-and-pack high-density development that they claim is being forced on them by unelected regional boards and bureaucrats.
The culprit is Plan Bay Area, a transportation and land use initiative to implement California’s landmark climate change legislation — AB 375. The aim of this bill is to halt the march of sprawl development that has been progressing for the last few decades out into the hinterlands of the Bay Area. Open space and farm lands have been gobbled up all the way into the Central Valley, forcing 1-2 hour commutes and clogging the roadways. Plan Bay Area’s aim is to direct new growth into already built areas, through infill and reuse. It is asking jurisdictions to identify areas for more intensive development with mixed income compact housing close to transit and services. Those that comply will be rewarded with transportation improvement dollars, hopefully to be used for transit and other non-auto improvements.
The initial opposition was fueled by Tea Party affiliates from around the Bay. These are property rights advocates who believe that initiatives like Plan Bay Area are only the beginning in a nefarious scheme to force people to live in small houses and take transit and ride bikes, obliterating the cushy suburban lifestyle they have come to cherish. But they are joined by left-wing advocates who share their distrust of government and especially hate big developers (or any development, for that matter).
The Green Party platform: “Promote urban infill with affordable housing, mass transit, schools, jobs, health care, public spaces, bicycle and walking paths, community gardens, open spaces, parks, playgrounds, and urban growth boundaries.”
Green environmental planning is well articulated in environmental platforms from the Sierra Club to the Green Party. New development should be focused near transit, job and retail centers. It should be small, compact, and offer multiple options for getting around, from walking, to biking and transit. This would seem a perfect fit for environmental Marin County, a liberal bastion just north of San Francisco. Indeed, the landmark Marin County Plan that down-zoned almost all of West Marin in 1972 included this language when it said that new development should be focused in the City-Centered Corridor, be mixed use, and served by transit. That same plan protected the open space and ranch lands ultimately leaving 80% of the county in permanently protected open space, including federal, state, and local preserves, wilderness areas, and parks.
So why then is there a powerful movement to stop exactly that kind of growth for Marin? The answer lies in the no-growth/preservationist sentiments of Marinites. A recent movie, Rebels with a Cause, chronicles the heroic fight to stop massive urbanization in Marin County and protect the pristinely beautiful coastline. Since the “rebels” of the 60s and 70s were focused on stopping massive development that would have paved over much of Marin’s natural beauty, most people assume that means that to continue the fight they have to oppose every single housing proposal that comes their way.
When the Bay Area Tea Party, which is largely made up of climate change deniers, invaded the Plan Bay Area Workshops using classic obstructionist tactics to disrupt the meetings, they found fertile ground in liberal Marin. The fact that they had the Corte Madera Wincup development as the perfect horror story only increased their ability to turn people in Marin against any kind of planning for density, however beneficial it may be.
Wincup is a large (for Marin) three- and four-story luxury apartment building that is being completed by the side of the freeway in Corte Madera. Its apartments, some of which are as large as 2000 square feet, do little to address the housing crisis facing Marin and the rest of the Bay Area, other than adding 180 units to the overall supply. This is Corte Madera’s attempt to have the housing requirements of its Housing Element (an element of the General Plan that is required by the state to ensure that each jurisdiction provide its fair share of housing in a region) met in one fell swoop, rather than in smaller, better integrated developments. Each jurisdiction is assigned a Regional Housing Needs Allotment (RHNA) and is required to identify locations where housing for low, moderate and market rate housing can be built (note that it requires that the locations be identified, not built). The Corte Madera Town Council had a committee that was researching various sites around town, but instead chose to focus all of its RHNA in one location – the site of the old Wincup factory. Since it was an abandoned industrial property, not in the center of Town, they hoped no one would oppose it. They were largely right about that when they approved it but people certainly began to notice it when it started to be built. In addition, the council slashed the affordable requirement from 25% to 10% and gave the owner free rein to build for maximum profit. The result is somewhat out of character to anything surrounding it and anything outside the City of San Rafael. It’s a perfect foil for the anti-housing movement, because it allows the anti-housing zealots to claim that regional “urbanists” want to put a Wincup development in every neighborhood, which is of course ridiculous.
Compare this to the Fairfax Housing Element, a plan that was locally grown and came out of a consensus process 15 years in the making. Fairfax is a small town of 7000 nestled into the foot of Mount Tamalpais, with a strong progressive counter culture. Its Housing Element follows the dictates of green planning. They chose sites mostly within the downtown for modest renewal – a 40 unit senior affordable housing project proposed by the Lutheran Church; the site of a former restaurant is slated for 21 small workforce housing units that the owner has pledged to keep 50% affordable; and the rest of their allotment is infill giving commercial buildings the ability to integrate housing units above stores and offices.
Yet, this modest proposal is being vehemently opposed by two former town council members who have ginned up the population asserting that this is a massive rezoning effort that will bring hundreds of homes “just like Wincup” to Fairfax. This fight is nasty, pitting neighbor against neighbor. They swear up and down that they are not part of any Tea Party, but some wear the angry red shirts of MAD (Marin Against Density) and get their talking points from Tea Party web sites.
Unlike their Tea Party counterparts, the leftist anti-housing people claim that they are the real environmentalists, offering a concern about CEQA regulations, global warming, and density housing near highways that could affect the residents’ health. All of them often repeat that they are all for affordable housing, but that nothing that is proposed is really affordable.
Taking it to the Ballot Box
In the unincorporated areas of Marin, the meetings are at the County level. Any sense of civility goes out the window. Up at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center, protestors were so determined to obstruct the proceedings in any way necessary that name-calling and shouting people down became commonplace, just like in Orinda.
At the Marin County Supervisors meeting devoted to Plan Bay Area in 2013, most people were from Marin, but there were strange contingents from other areas. One was the East Bay Tea Party Founder, Heather Gass, who seems to believe that Plan Bay Area is devoted to declaring eminent domain in order to take peoples’ homes, leaving them homeless. One of the two anti-housing panelists was from the CATO Institute. His name is Randal O’Toole, with no connection to Marin County, and he claimed that all “planning” is bad.
Mr. O’Toole considers himself a Public Policy analyst, and he is directly on the Koch Brothers payroll. He neither believes in urban planning nor public transportation. He believes all these should be privatized. He lives in Camp Sherman, Oregon, just outside of Bend. He wears a bolo tie and a cowboy shirt, and sports one of those Wild West goatees. He is a showman, a huckster, and a snake oil salesman, and he looks the part.
According to Mr. O’Toole, the New Urbanist design is a failure, and the accompanying smart growth strategies — light rail, mixed use, and denser developments near transportation hubs — are against the values of the American urban sprawl ethic, and he campaigns vigorously against it.
In his book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities (Thoreau Institute, 2001) Mr. O’Toole takes on public transportation. He often criticizes the light rail system in his home town of Portland, Oregon as an abject failure. He holds it up as a model of what is wrong with public transportation. But it is not a failure — it is a huge success. This is part of the strategy of the far right Neo-Libertarians; attack the successes of public policy. The Tri-Met in Portland enjoys ridership of over 135,000 people a day, taking 10% of all commuters off the highways of I-5, US30, US26, I-84, and I205. Without Tri-Met (and the fantastic bicycle trail system that makes Portland the most bicycle-friendly town in America) the traffic around Portland, Oregon would descend into hopeless gridlock. Mr. O’Toole dismisses this all as socialist hogwash, and claims that “nobody uses the Tri-Met public transportation system.” It is kind of like that famous Casey Stengel line when asked about a popular restaurant, he said,”Nobody goes there anymore, it is just too crowded”
O’Toole also wrote a book called “Best Laid Plans” How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your future (CATO Institute, 2007). O’Toole believes in free-market solutions to urban planning — that being no planning whatsoever.
Co-incidentally, in Marin County, a Mill Valley developer named Bob Silvestri wrote a book with the similar title called Best Laid Plans: Our Planning and Affordable Housing Challenge in Marin County (Kindle, 2012). Sivestri is the local darling of the anti-affordable housing crowd, and is invited to speak at all the tea parties in the Bay Area. He writes a column in the Mill Valley Patch also called “Best Laid Plans”. In Fairfax, he was seen accompanying Frank Egger, one of the former council members leading the fight against the Housing Element, and at the Town Hall meeting, many anti-housing advocates have asked the council to have Mr. Silvestri come and speak.
The anti-development zealots of the Tea Party-connected anti-housing groups are breathless with their pseudo-intellectualism. They publish quasi-academic treatises with an air of elitist skeptical distrust for all things government, and especially the planning process, with its burdensome mandates. But they claim to have the best interests of the community at heart, when they are not threatening ruinous lawsuits. Silvestri and O’Toole are especially imaginative with citation logrolling (O’Toole cites Silvestri, then Silvestri cites O’Toole, or in a real coup, they just cite themselves).
The misleading scare tactics have some elected officials fed up. The game is to keep the pro-housing advocates refuting the endless fear-mongering allegations like a game of whack-a-mole, until they throw up their hands in disgust and walk away. Game over. Supervisor Judy Arnold read into the record at the July 8 Supervisors’ meeting a hate-filled rant by a local M.D. named Dr. Robert L. Freinkel. In the letter the doctor said “Marin does not want high density housing… We do not want ill-behaved, ignorant welfare landfill dumped in our communities to trash our neighborhoods and our schools. Do let me know when the multi-generational welfare clients in Marin City behave like civilized persons instead of attacking bus riders and law enforcement.”
This affordable housing fight has had some serious implications at the polls. The bright and hard- working Marin County District 2 Supervisor from San Rafael, Susan Adams, was defeated by Damon Connolly on June third. Connelly, while usually known as a progressive, took up the mantle of anti-development and other favorite Tea Party causes like public pensions. He was backed by MAD and by local Real Estate Broker Melissa Bradley who proclaimed quite famously “I don’t recall volunteering for the ghetto!” He claimed to take no special interest money but received a hefty donation from Bradley, who surely has an interest in keeping real estate prices high in Marin.
Also in June, Judy Arnold narrowly won the Novato Supervisor’s race by only 200 votes against novice Toni Shroyer. It nearly went to a recount. Shroyer is a Melissa Bradley Real Estate Agent who was quick to explain why elder housing increases crime. She claims that when there is affordable senior housing, the grandchildren of the residents move into the units and deal crack.
Progressive Marin may find itself without its progressive leaders if it allows itself to be misled by the Tea Party hysteria.
There is a national movement to stop any kind of green planning efforts across the country. Karen Trapenberg Frick is Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She also is Assistant Director of the University of California Transportation Center and the University of California Transportation Center on Economic Competitiveness in Transportation. She has written extensively on the Tea Party efforts to scuttle transportation and land use projects:
…Less studied is the fierce opposition mounted by Tea Party and property rights activists against city and regional planning efforts. Planning opponents often invoke United Nations Agenda 21, which they view as a smokescreen for achieving a U.N.-led -one-world government. The chief villains behind this perceived insidious plot are the APA and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, a nonprofit organization that assists cities with climate action planning.
Regional agencies come under special attack because they are governed by unelected and, opponents argue, unaccountable boards; they are considered a threat to the autonomy of local governments and their land use authority.
Tea Party and related activists question the costs and value of policies to reduce carbon emissions because of deep-rooted skepticism about climate change claims.
Of Plan Bay Area, she writes, Opponents also challenged the plan’s contents. Activist interviewees acknowledged traffic congestion was an issue, but vehemently disagreed with the value of the state mandate to address climate change, the science behind it, and the need to develop regional transit and land use plans. Activists singled out for special criticism the plan directing new growth and funding to PDAs (Planned Development Areas); activists argued that the plan’s financial incentives manipulated cities into adopting high-density development and affordable housing, which they routinely labeled as “stack and pack.”
They claimed regional agencies and cities had not seriously factored in such development’s high fiscal costs and negative impacts on public services such as schools, fire, and police. Activists chose to block the plan’s adoption and public outreach process.
Activists held training sessions and posted information online to demonstrate how to thwart the use of standard protocols during public meetings. As a result, citizens flooded public meetings. They also blocked planners’ outreach activities by calling out questions, demanding answers on the legitimacy of unelected boards, questioning population projections, and requesting definitions of terms such as sustainability, equity, and social justice”
The paper goes on to compare the Atlanta Transportation Tax opposition to the Bay Area experience. In that instance, the opposition was to light rail, something Marin County also experienced. Arguments used were the same as the ones that oppose the SMART train in Marin – not cost effective, no accountability, won’t relieve congestion, and they recommended Bus Rapid Transit instead, just as was proposed in Marin. Agenda 21 was still a subtext for the Tea Party opposition. But they were joined by the local Sierra Club, which wanted more flexibility and more public transit options, and by the NAACP, because the black neighborhood was not getting a rail line. As in the Bay Area, the Tea Party is taking advantage of these alliances to unseat elected officials – which could have the ultimate effect of getting liberal organizations to vote against their own self interests based on a single-issue conflict.
The United Nations’ “Agenda 21: The Rio Declaration on Development and Environment,” a source document on sustainable development, has become a rallying cry for Tea Party activists across the country. This informal loose coalition of anti-Agenda 21 activists (the ‘no-21 coalition’ for brevity) promotes state legislation throughout the nation by developing a counter-narrative suggesting the UN seeks to restrict individual property rights and redistribute wealth from developed to developing nations in the name of questionable climate science. In essence, they are convinced that this is a vast conspiracy to force people out of their single-family homes and cars and make them ride bikes, take transit, and only be able to shop within 10 miles of their home. They see it as a plot to impose a “One World Government,” and thus will oppose anything that is remotely related to sustainable planning, public transit, bike lanes, and Transit Oriented Development They even go so far as to imply that building light rail is a national security risk because terrorists will target it.
These activists are responsible for reversing green planning efforts through the enactment of state resolutions against Agenda 21 and intimidating local governments to back away from green planning efforts. Here is an example from Kansas:
“Whereas: The United Nations Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of environmental extremism, social engineering and global political control.
Whereas: This United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called ‘sustainable development’ views the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership, individual travel choices and privately owned farms as destructive to the Environment.
Be it resolved by the House of Representatives of the State of Kansas:
That we recognize the destructive and insidious nature of United Nations Agenda 21 and hereby expose to public policy makers the dangerous intent of the plan;”
Twenty-six states have introduced similar resolutions or laws, but fortunately, only five of them actually passed. But these Tea Party radicals are passionate. They believe they are on a holy crusade to save the American way of life and they are being joined by those on the left who likewise distrust local government but have no clue who they are getting in bed with.
Marin Fights Back
Back in Marin, groups are cropping up to counter these efforts. Coalition for a Livable Marin CALM) and Fairfax for Affordable Housing are loose associations that are just starting to organize. They are made up of long time housing and sustainability activists who understand the truth about green planning and the need for mixed-income housing. They are the real David to the Tea Party Goliath that currently has them outgunned and out-organized. But they are banking on the intelligence and liberal bias of Marin to ultimately win the day. There is a reason that the people from MAD want to deny their Tea Party affiliation. They know it would never be tolerated in Marin.
Their tactics are now starting to backfire. A last-minute flier appeared in Fairfax on the day of the historic vote to rescind Fairfax’s Zoning Ordinance which implemented its Housing Element. Those who wanted the rescinding were furious that the council had inserted language stating they were simply fixing errors, not backing down on their Housing Element. They needed to pack the hearing. Residents awoke to fliers in their mailboxes and posted around town that the owner of the downtown School Street Plaza, had an approved project for 30 to 50 condos in the middle of town.
The flier screamed in block letters “LAST CHANCE TO SAVE OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IS TOWN COUNCIL MEETING JULY! DEMAND ORDINANCE #778 BE REPEALED OR PUT ON THE NOVEMBER BALLOT”
The problem was that the zoning for 30-50 condos was neither just approved, nor was there an application for such a project, nor was there an entitlement to build without one. The Housing Element recommended 9 possible units. No such development would ever be considered without a CEQA analysis, and, in this political climate, the city council is now requiring workshops on the individual parcels in the housing element.
When people showed up at the meeting they found out that that School Street wasn’t on the agenda, there was no proposal, and indeed it wasn’t the “last chance” to address the issue. Some of them stayed for the meeting out of curiosity and ended up on the mailing list of the affordable housing advocates. Perhaps these take-no-prisoner Tea Party tactics are not a good fit for Marin after all.
Time to Get Organized
The true green agenda like the one proposed by Plan Bay Area is one that protects open space and agricultural lands through directing growth to infill, mixed use, compact development that reduces car trips and conserves resources.
The Tea Party propaganda infiltrates the process and changes the discussion. Tactical maneuvers and strategies are deployed into the citizen’s town hall meetings in order to create an atmosphere where the neo-libertarian agenda prevails. These tea party talking points are created to maintain the status quo, effectively duping many of the citizens who hold liberal views concerning the environment and the nature of their community.
Some of the tactics include, but are not limited to:
• Endlessly repeating talking points until they are “Facts”.
• Disrupting town hall and civic center meetings which intimidate the normal citizen, and shouts down the opposition.
• Personally attacking the opposition.
• Abuse of the referendum process.
• Denying all of the above.
CALM and its allies are making some inroads in bringing intelligent discourse back into the conversation. Many in the Marin are getting fed up with the rude behavior and disparaging remarks being made by the MAD representatives. Those who believe in creating resource efficient livable communities and a fair housing policy need to counter attack these tactics with campaigns that repeat the truth in this morass of lies. Once people hear a more compassionate message of diversity and inclusion rather than mean-spirited exclusivity, they begin to understand the truth. People need to speak out, get organized and show up demonstrating that they will not be intimidated. If they don’t, the political landscape of the once liberal Bay Area will be forever changed.