Public Comment

The Tea Party, Planning and Democracy, Part Two (News Analysis)

By Zelda Bronstein
Friday January 27, 2012 - 12:31:00 PM

[Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two part series. Part One can be found here.]

Progressive observers treat the Tea Party’s forays into land use planning as the work of paranoid reactionaries. The March-April 2011 issue of Mother Jones ran an article by Stephanie Mencimer that portrayed Tea Partiers as “nutters” whose opposition to increased density and mass transit is rooted in “a hostility to what it sees as elites” and a pro-sprawl, suburban lifestyle. Last December, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s Anthony Flint riffed off of Mencimer’s piece in a post on the Atlantic magazine’s “Urban Wonk” blog that decried Tea Party disruption of planning efforts from California to Maine to Florida.

The truth is more complicated. Pace Rosa Koire, to attack smart growth as part of an international plot guided by the U.N.’s Agenda 21 really is to espouse conspiracy theory. To denounce “human-caused global warming” as a myth, as does the East Bay Tea Party, is to indulge in perilous denial. But to claim that land use planning is often run by unresponsive elites is to tap reality. Flint himself intimated as much: “Some might wonder,” he wrote, “whether there’s some truth” to accusations that “planners have draped the public process with the trappings of citizen input, while in fact all the decisions to promote smart growth have been made.”

Some do more than wonder, and they’re not all members or even “fellow travelers” of the Tea Party—for example, longtime Berkeley community activist Doug Buckwald. Speaking at the Dublin open mike, Buckwald assailed Plan Bay Area for discriminating against dissenters from smart growth doctrine. He said that a friend had tried to register for a workshop online at 7:30 am the day that registration opened, only to be told that the meetings were filled, and that she would be placed on a waitlist. She never got a confirmation from MTC, but she did receive letters from Greenbelt Alliance urging her to sign up and hold the line against opponents to the process who were poised to flood into the meetings. 

You may be thinking, what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t Greenbelt Alliance have a right to mobilize people who share its views? Of course it does. The catch is that the organization is hardly a disinterested party: it receives funding through its ties to the regional agencies. Like other non-governmental non-profits, Greenbelt Alliance has partnered with a city or county—in its case, Contra Costa County—for a share of the $5 million dollar Sustainable Communities Program grant that the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded MTC and ABAG last November. Some of the other non-profit partners are the Bay Area Council, the Non Profit Housing Association of Northern California, TransForm, Urban Habitat and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Community Foundation. All of them have a direct financial stake in the SCS/RTP. 

Besides conflicts of monetary interest, the advocacy non-profits have an accountability problem. As non-governmental entities, they’re not answerable to the general public. To be sure, they see themselves as representing the greater good. Good intentions notwithstanding, citizens at large have no claim on these organizations. 

These legitimacy issues haunt the Plan Bay Area process. Not only did non-profits help draft the SCS/RTP; their staffers have also participated in the public workshops, voting on investment options in transportation and housing. As Lisa Vorderbrueggen reported in the Contra Costa Times, ABAG and MTC used staff from some of their non-profit partners to facilitate Plan Bay Area’s workshops last May. When a Greenbelt Alliance senior field representative “began delivering an overview of the One Bay Area Planning process” at the Contra Costa County event, someone yelled, “Is this a government meeting?” 

“In the public agencies’ defense,” Vorderbrueggen wrote, “they were trying to save money”: the Silicon Valley Leadership Group had gotten a Knight Foundation grant to pay for outreach, which is expensive. Nevertheless, she continued, “the public must have confidence that [the final SCS/RTP] is the result of broad input and not the work product of specific advocacy groups.” 

Accountability is an issue for the regional agencies themselves. As Buckwald observed, “the MTC is not a duly elected organization.” In fact, some of the commission’s members are not elected at all. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission comprises nine county supervisors, six city mayors or city councilmembers, and one representative apiece from the Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission, CalTrans, the Federal Department of Transportation and HUD. ABAG’s Executive Board consists of fifteen supervisors and twenty mayors or city councilmembers. None of these officials were elected to serve on a regional body. 

The way they conduct regional business distances them even further from the public. MTC and ABAG meetings take place during the day. The daytime schedule excludes working people, except those who are paid to be there, which is to say, the staff of public agencies and non-profit advocacy groups. In Fall 2010 I attended several morning meetings devoted to drafting the SCS/RTP goals; of the two or three dozen people in the room, a handful at most were citizens with no governmental or non-profit affiliation. 

To be sure, the regional agencies don’t always see eye to eye with the advocacy nonprofits on transportation, equity or other issues. And cities and counties push back against policies they consider onerous: check out the comments from many Bay Area jurisdictions on the first draft of the SCS/RTP . Criticisms notwithstanding, every letter avows the worthiness of SB 375’s goals. 

That’s only to be expected. Though regional officials repeatedly state that local compliance with the requirements of SCS/RTP will be voluntary, when pressed, they concede that only those jurisdictions that meet those requirements will be eligible to receive some of the millions of public funds that will be disbursed through MTC. 

What made the Dublin workshop unusual was that it was an official regional planning event attended by a large number of ordinary citizens, and that many if not most of those citizens challenged the premises of smart growth. The majority of the dissidents rested their case on a defense of property rights, “blind” justice, the private automobile and market fundamentalism or something close to it. As such, they could be readily written off as anti-government, anti-regulation and, most damning, anti-environment. 

Not so Berkeley resident Steve Finacom, who raised the most radical objection of the evening, when he questioned planners’ assumption that the more growth, the better. That assumption, he noted, conflicts with the view of the region’s pioneering generation of environmental activists, such as the founders of Save the Bay: population and development need to be limited to what the area’s natural resources (think water) can support without degrading the environment. 

Finacom was indirectly alluding to the planning profession’s close ties to the real estate industry. Unlike living organisms, property capital requires endless growth for its health. SB 375 “streamlines,” i.e., reduces, environmental regulations for housing built near transit; not coincidentally, one of the bill’s chief supporters was the California Building Industry Association. 

Of all the public comments I heard at the Dublin workshop, the one that got the biggest hand was Buckwald’s declaration that “this whole process should be shut down and started all over again with adequate public process from the start.” Let’s get real: MTC and ABAG are not going to re-boot Plan Bay Area. But they could—and should—do their best to make the rest of the process, as well as future planning for our region, more accountable to the public at large. 

For starters, they could apply the lessons of the Plan Bay Area experience. When citizens ask tough questions, they should get straight answers. Exactly how did MTC and ABAG decide that our region would have two million new residents in the next twenty-five years? Are green policies really driving businesses out of California? Does the SCS/RTP consider how environmental regulations are affecting business in our region? New development raises property values and often forces poor people out of their homes and low-rent businesses out of their spaces; how does the plan deal with the displacement threat? 

From the other side, when planners ask members of the public to evaluate “transportation trade-offs” or the qualities of “complete communities,” they should provide well-presented factual material that enables ordinary citizens to make informed choices. Instead of asking people who are registering for an official meeting to identify themselves as advocates of one thing or another, give them the option of stating an affiliation. Require public officials and employees of non-profit advocacy groups to state their affiliations, and print those affiliations on their name tags. Have employees of public agencies and their non-profit partners vote separately from the rest of the public, and record and publicize their votes separately as well. 

And how about holding meetings of ABAG’s Executive Board and MTC at night? 

These changes would make regional public process more open and more meaningful. But they’d have little or no effect on planners’ core belief that development is environmentally benign as long as it’s dense and close to transit. Challenging that belief and its formidable beneficiaries—I’m talking about real estate developers and the politicians whose campaigns they bankroll—will be much tougher than getting straight answers at planning workshops.