Tea Party in Local Government

The Tea Party has made its mark on the national political scene by insisting that Congress spend less in a time of recession and also by questioning widely held views about climate change. In Virginia, the movement is also taking aim at a surprising target in local government.

It might be hard to find a subject that’s less sexy than urban planning. People rarely show up at municipal meetings to debate the dry details of development, so officials were surprised when a small but angry crowd assembled at Blacksburg’s town hall.

The Commonwealth wants larger communities that are growing to say where and what kind of housing, schools, stores and offices it might want to accommodate more people.  The idea is to avoid sprawl and to create sustainable urban centers:

“Ah, the word sustainability stands out, since it is such a key word in Blacksburg and the VT community,” says Roger Abelhart, the first to speak at the public hearing. “A key word in local vocabularies since Blacksburg became a dues paying member to ICLEI, which to me at the very least is a violation of article one, section ten of our US Constitution.”

For those who don’t have their constitution handy, article one, section ten says states shall not enter into any agreement with a foreign Power, and ICEI, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives,  is a global group of more than 1,200 cities that has ties to the United Nations.

“I don’t think we want to have any directions from the UN down here in the real world,” says Roscoe Trivett who drove 125 miles from Bristol to protest.

ICLEI helps communities figure out how to reduce their carbon footprint, provides software and educational materials and allows cities around the world to compare notes on going green. To Rich Collins, professor emeritus of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, that seems like a good idea.

“The feeling, like well, if we join with others on behalf of common planetary concerns, somehow it’s subversive of American values. I find that absurd. Frankly, I find it laughable,” Collins says, “I think there’s a broad consensus that land use planning is essential. And land use planning is not just simply cutting land into different zones; it is dealing with the capital improvements that are needed, with the schools that must be built to accommodate the new population, of getting people from here to there. This is pretty well accepted now, except by those who perhaps have not been paying attention.”

Chip Tarbutton has been paying attention, and he doesn’t like what he sees. The leader of Roanoke County’s Tea Party says urban development areas will threaten our private property rights and our future choices.

“Essentially what they want to do is create clustered developments or urban development areas where the majority of people would live and then make it difficult if not impossible for people to live outside of those areas, so those other areas would be held in reserve as wildlife preserves and in that way they hope to reduce carbon emissions that would save the planet from the global warming hoax they’re trying to foist on us,” Tarbutton says.

Tea party proponent Charles Battig agrees. He told the Albemarle County Board that all this planning might be totally unnecessary. A physician and an engineer, Battig is not swayed by a growing consensus in science that human behavior is causing the current round of climate change.

“Consensus has never proved anything,” says Battig, “At one point consensus ‘proved’ the Earth was flat, in my medical field that ulcers were caused by stress and cured by milk. Now we know that neither one of those is true.”

His allies, who constitute a majority on the Albemarle County Board, voted to drop their membership in ICLEI.  So did elected officials in James and nine other communities around the country. In Roanoke, the board of supervisors voted to put off the designation of urban development areas, and Tea Party leaders are pressing the state legislature to repeal the requirement that communities plan them.

— Sandy Hausman

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