How Paranoid Local Politicians in Alabama Killed a Development Plan Thinking It Was a U.N. Plot
BAY MINETTE, Ala. – Supporters of smart-growth and anti-sprawl initiatives should study the Battle of Baldwin County.
It was a rout – for the other side.
The battle was fought over several hours on Aug. 7, 2012, in a meeting room here, the small-town seat of the sprawling county, Alabama’s largest and one of its fastest-growing. The hostilities began that morning and by the time the verbal bullets had finally stopped flying that afternoon, the county’s award-winning, $285,000 comprehensive development plan, known as Horizon 2025, was dead.
The plan was killed by a three-to-one vote by the Baldwin County Commission, the four elected officials who oversee the county by the sea.
“This battle is more than just planning,” the county commission’s chairman, Robert James, said that day. “This is to protect the Constitution of the United States and what’s in it and, to me, even the Ten Commandments that God gave us.”
The plan was not the last casualty.
On Nov. 16, 2012, the entire nine-member Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission quit in protest and disgust after their masterwork was shot down. The mass resignation was a drastic and dramatic decision that did not come easily to the men and women on the commission. They were not a band of radical, anti-development tree-huggers, although one was a registered forester. They were respected residents of the community, who had, over the years, put in hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer hours performing their civic duty, trying to help guide and manage the county’s explosive growth. The commission members included a certified public accountant, a real estate appraiser, a grant consultant for rural communities and two retired military officers, one of whom is the second highest-ranking official in the Alabama Republican Party.
The plan was rescinded, according to the group letter of resignation, “on a pretext so devoid of relevance and merit as, in our opinion, to elicit only ridicule on the part of any serious knowledgeable observer.”
The pretext was the entirely voluntary United Nations planning document known as Agenda 21.
“It was the principal issue,” longtime Baldwin County Commissioner Frank Burt, who voted to rescind Horizon 2025, told the Intelligence Report. “People began to study Agenda 21 and the more people became aware of what is happening, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world, they didn’t want anything like it. The plan [Horizon 2025] just fit right into Agenda 21’s overall plan. Nobody ever tied it together before. You can clearly see it is all part of the same plan.”
Baldwin County is just one example of the increasing and bitter attacks on Agenda 21 and local sustainable growth efforts from Maine to California. The fears Agenda 21 provokes plug directly into more than a century of far-right worries about any international body imposing any kind of control on the United States. The tactics used are as old as McCarthyism. In attacking the Baldwin County comprehensive plan, James, the county commission chairman, invoked the names of Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Mussolini, and how their “plans, guides, outlines” resulted in the deaths of millions of people.
Chances are, however, unless you belong to the John Birch Society, one of the Tea Parties or some other rightist collective, you have no idea that Agenda 21 is considered a grave threat to truth, justice and the American Way – and apparently to life in Baldwin County. Odds are also good that you, like most people – with bills to pay, kids to raise, conspiracy theories to ignore – have never read a word of the 22-year-old, 100-plus-page document or even heard of it.
Agenda 21 is a nonbinding U.N. resolution – a proposal, a global guide – designed to encourage, not mandate, nations to pursue conservation, “sustainable” green growth and land use development efforts. It was passed and signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 by more than 170 world leaders, including President George H.W. Bush.
‘All Government is Bad’
Yet, to the American right, Agenda 21 is a sneak attack on the sanctity of private property, another footfall on the long march to One World Government that is destined to darken our bright skies with black helicopters. It is an UN-inspired conspiracy that seeks, in the words of the archconservative John Birch Society, which is at the forefront of the opposition to Agenda 21, “to curtail your freedom of travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family.”
Local initiatives and plans such as Horizon 2025, which was also nonbinding, are simply Agenda 21 in disguise, harmless-looking spies laying the groundwork for a foreign invasion. “The conspiracies are real,” one man told the County Commission meeting. “If you want to ignore them, ignore them at your own peril.”
In recent years, Agenda 21 has become an effective rallying cry, organizing tool and bludgeon that right-wing groups have been using to beat back local sustainable growth and anti-sprawl initiatives, including everything from bike paths to smart meters on home appliances. The attacks have caught city councils, planning commissions and smart-growth advocates across the country off guard, leaving them scrambling to mount a defense.
“I had not heard about it [Agenda 21] before they [the county commissioners] started touting it,” Arthur C. Dyas, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission for 16 years, the last few as chairman, told the Report. “Our plan had nothing to do with Agenda 21. I called one of the county commissioners on it and he just about shouted me down. By God, this was all about Agenda 21 and the United Nations. And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
“It made absolutely no sense to me,” Dyas continued. “I like to believe that he really didn’t think it was about Agenda 21, that he was just using that to beat our brains in with it. But I’m not sure. I’m not sure whether he believed it or not. I just think it was really sad and a disservice to the people of this county for the county commission to have rescinded it.”
The award-winning Horizon 2025 was replaced a year later, in October 2013, by a substantially shorter plan, “with a lot fewer words,” County Commissioner Burt said. “The new plan,” he added, “is more direct and to the point and just easier to understand. It’s more concise. Our United States Constitution is a pretty short document, too.”
Since the death of Horizon 2025, Baldwin County has become a sort of Rorschach test. For those who believe Agenda 21 means the beginning of the end of American freedoms – from property rights to gun ownership – Baldwin County was a triumph of the will of the people. To supporters of smart and sustainable growth, such as Cara Smallwood, one of the planning commissioners who resigned, what happened that day in Bay Minette was “simply crazy.”
“I felt we were being demonized by the County Commission,” Smallwood told the Report. “They were beating the scary government drum. It’s the age of the Tea Party, all government is bad. That’s why they threw an amazing, award-winning plan into the trash.”
A Plan to be Proud Of
For years, the Planning and Zoning Commission tried to get a handle on the county’s explosive growth. Retirees were flooding in to take advantage of the miles of sandy white beaches, piney woods, warm weather and relatively low cost of living in Baldwin County on the Gulf of Mexico. Young families were also flocking to Baldwin, clogging the roads and causeways as they commuted back and forth to nearby Mobile for work. From 1990 to 2000, the county experienced a 42.9% increase in its population. Meanwhile, subdivisions were popping up everywhere, with little consideration given to how the many projects fit with each other, the environment and the future. “There was no control over development,” said Dyas, the former chairman of the planning commission. “It was a train wreck.”
There was so much development, going up so fast, that Planning and Zoning Commission meetings would sometimes start at 6 in the evening and end at 4 the next morning. Next, the meetings were split in two: subdivisions on the first Thursday of the month, zoning on the third. “Hell, we were still going from 6 until midnight, 1 o’clock,” Dyas said. “It was unbelievable.”
In 2009, after days of public hearings held by the Planning and Zoning Commission, thousands of man- and woman-hours, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Baldwin County comprehensive plan was adopted by the County Commission by a vote of 3 to 1. “The comprehensive plan was just that, a plan,” Dyas said. “It was not a law. It was not an ordinance. It was a plan, something to use as a guide in future development of a given area.”
The following year, the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Department was awarded the Alabama Chapter of the American Planning Association’s 2010 Outstanding Planning Award for Horizon 2025. In its newsletter, the chapter praised the plan, saying “Since its adoption, environmental concerns and livability are now also considerations when development is proposed.”
“As for developers,” the newsletter added, “the plan lends stability to the development process – there is now a guide for where development can be located, how it can be developed and its best and most compatible uses. The plan is intended to provide foresight and remove some of the guess work from development to ultimately allow the realization of the County’s vision.”
But by then the great recession had already swept across America and development projects from Maine to California to Baldwin County came to a screeching halt. Bulldozers now sat still and silent in the Alabama sun. Planning and zoning meetings went back to once a month. At some meetings there were no items on the agenda. One meeting lasted a record six minutes. “That’s how fast it tanked down here,” Dyas said. “So, the plan really never had a chance to be fully implemented into the process here in Baldwin County.”
Still, two new county commissioners, who were elected after running on a platform opposed to the plan as too restrictive and intrusive, vowed to rescind it as soon as possible. Now the balance of power was reversed, setting the stage for the Aug. 7, 2012, meeting and the end of Horizon 2025.
Black Helicopters and Baldwin County
Baldwin County officials said the meeting on the fate of Horizon 2025 was called because there was concern that the county’s comprehensive plan did not adhere to Alabama’s new anti-Agenda 21 law, which was passed in May 2012 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2013. The law says “the state of Alabama and all political subdivisions may not adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict property rights without due process.”
Existing laws plainly already prevented such property seizures. But that didn’t stop the fearmongering in Baldwin County. In the days leading up to the meeting, fliers were distributed warning of the “massive land grab represented by Horizon 2025.” More than 30 people signed up to speak. Some carried small American flags. Most wanted to see the plan killed.
Craig Skaggs, a retired lobbyist for DuPont, was one of the few to speak in support of retaining the plan. He must have felt like Davy Crockett at the Alamo – or maybe Alice in Wonderland.
Skaggs called the state’s anti-Agenda 21 legislation “needless” and the attacks on Horizon 2025 as a U.N.-inspired land grab “pure poppycock,” following “the lead of the conspiracy theories at the Wisconsin-based John Birch Society.”
“Do we really want,” he asked, “rampant growth based on only the changing political whims of county commissions or greedy land interests that often control our politicians?”
Ricky Richardson, of Fairhope, Ala., said Agenda 21 and Horizon 2025 is a “duplicate” and worried about “Americans that kept their blinders on, and when they were marching them into the rail cars they still didn’t understand what had happened to them.”
Richardson said he applauded the Baldwin County Commission for essentially snatching off its blinders and “being on top of this and realizing that this is a movement coming from a global initiative and being promoted through local government.”
He left the podium to sustained applause.
Boyd Little and his wife Catherine took the podium and told the meeting that they opposed the comprehensive plan “because we really don’t understand what all is taking place with it.” Little’s buddy and neighbor, a blind farmer named Arthur Frego Jr., said he also could not understand the plan and warned that if “this magnificent maze of paperwork goes through it’s going to be mandatory.”
“And instead of the old reading, writing and arithmetic you were taught in school,” Frego said, “it’ll be rules, regulations and restrictions.”
Another speaker compared Horizon 2025 to "The Communist Manifesto" and pointed out that Karl Marx’s handiwork was supposed to be merely a guide, too. “Can the plan,” he urged. “It’s draconian. Can that baby.”
Ken Freeman told the audience that he had driven for six hours from his home in northern Alabama to plead with the commissioners to rescind the plan. Freeman is the chairman of the Alliance for Citizens Rights, which, he said, has worked on property rights and constitutional issues for more than 15 years. He said he travels the state, taking complicated subjects like Horizon 2025 and translating them into simpler terms, or “Bubba Talk.”
For example, Freeman said the black helicopters people are always talking about aren’t actually black. “They’re green with black numbers on them,” he said.
“The people who accuse us of being the black helicopter crowd,” he said, “there must be a lot of black helicopters these days” because earlier that spring the Republican National Party drew up “a very strong anti-Agenda 21 resolution.”
A watered-down version of that resolution was eventually included in the party platform for the 2012 presidential election. “We’ve got black helicopter people everywhere,” Freeman said.
Before the final vote was taken to “repeal, rescind and void” Horizon 2025, James, the county commission chairman, looked out at the audience. “This is just a start,” he said. “You need to stay involved. It’s important. And it’s nice to come here today and see so many people that have that passion. But use that passion for more than just this one issue.”
Then the plan was killed, the audience cheered and filled the room with a warbled version of “God Bless America.”