Bob Herndon, part of the steering committee on Chesterfield County's comprehensive plan; Photo by Isaac Harrell
Ralph Carter couldn't have been more pleased when the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors took his organization's advice and tabled its Feb. 8 plans to vote on a new long-term land-use plan for the county.
In the eyes of Carter and others with the tea party-aligned Chester Patriots, the county barreled along for nearly three years toward disaster — following an international scheme ultimately aiming to strip Americans of their property rights and freedoms.
But with a 4-1 vote on Feb. 8, the board awakened to reason, at least in the view of Carter and his fellows. The supervisors tabled the county's long-anticipated comprehensive plan, effectively scuttling the decades-long efforts of local sustainable growth advocates.
"What we were basically opposed to was this Agenda 21," Carter says, suggesting that the county's proposed plan had been infiltrated and corrupted by adherents to an obscure, decades old United Nations resolution. Agenda 21 affirms international commitment to anti-sprawl principles often promoted by smart-growth and sustainability movements. But to some tea party activists, the resolution is a slippery slope toward socialism and one-world government.
"I know this sounds kind of conspiracy theory, but this is how Agenda 21 is handled," says Carter, whose group entered the fray comparatively late — in the spring of 2011, just as the county's election cycle kicked off. "[Agenda 21] is pitched as, ‘Hey, this is good for the community...' They don't come in with red flares. "
The only red many see in Agenda 21 is a red herring.
"It's unbelievable," says Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors, dismissing Agenda 21, though not dismissing the very real concerns about the plan that continue to worry construction and real estate industry leaders. Lafayette sat on the county's citizen steering committee that helped guide the comprehensive plan revision process and declares, "We feel like we did a pretty good job of protecting development rights."
But Board of Supervisors Chairman Dan Gecker says he valued the input of the tea party.
"At its core, [the proposed plan] doesn't recognize what we are," Gecker said on the day supervisors voted to take the plan back to the drawing board. Gecker and the board asked county staff for simpler language, asking that revisions consider Chesterfield's suburban character. Gecker called the current draft plan "difficult to read."
"Members of the Tea Party have spoken at a number of our meetings and expressed some valid concerns regarding the proposed plan," wrote Gecker, responding to Richmond magazine via email, after indicating he was too busy with county business for an interview.
Answering whether the board's hands-off approach during the plan's three-year-long process may have unintentionally politicized it, Gecker wrote, "Formulation of any plan is a political process." He added that he welcomed the tea party advocates' eleventh-hour entry into the process and eschewed any suggestion that polarized politics had cluttered the revision, which cost more than $1 million when factoring in payment to a consulting firm and the thousands of hours spent by county planners.
However, it's probably naïve to think Chesterfield's Board of Supervisors blinked because a few dozen members of a minority political group warned of an international organization bent on global domination through the unlikely path of Chesterfield's zoning and land-use policies.
"I think the short version is that those who didn't want the comprehensive plan to come to be in the first place are now getting their way," says Bob Herndon, another member of the citizens' steering committee. Herndon blames "builders, developers and [large] landowners — the whole nine yards."
He says Gecker's complaints about the draft document's complexity ring false: Gecker, a former real estate lawyer, is a developer used to the complexities of county planning processes all over Central Virginia.
"It's probably not as fuzzy to him as he makes out, to be quite honest," Herndon says, noting the plan uses language familiar to municipal planners and developers.
Ask either side of the debate, and they generally agree that Chesterfield's current comprehensive plan isn't very comprehensive. The county hasn't revised the plan in 20 years; instead, the intervening years have seen sub-plan revisions in each magisterial district, but never with full consideration of the big picture.
That lack of vision or a coherent plan for managing development is what some point to as having led to the current woeful imbalance in the county between residential and commercial/business development. The industry-accepted sweet spot, ensuring a tax base capable of paying for infrastructure — is about 30 percent business to 70 percent residential. Chesterfield struggles to achieve 20 percent business, Herndon notes.
Also absent in the old plans is a master concept for developing the county's infrastructure, says Herndon: "When you've got schools that look more like trailer parks with schools next to them, you've got a problem."
The draft plan considered these things. Steering committee members boldly re-imaged Chesterfield as a diverse community. Steering future development along already developed corridors like U.S. 360, they left many rural areas nearly untouchable.
It was a plan that both Lafayette and Herndon — each representing often opposing interests — say looked pretty good.
"I think planning [officials] did a real thorough job," Lafayette says. Yet, she says, she doesn't fault the board for tabling the plan; there were areas in need of improvement.
But the supervisors' decision to kick the plan back to planning department staff for revisions has smart-growth proponents fearing major losses to Agenda 21 fear mongering.
Cathy Kirk, a steering committee member and former president of the Task Force for Responsible Growth, says she's all but certain that many of the key elements of the plan that the steering committee hammered out after months of public input will be abandoned.
"Last I heard, they were pretty much washing their hands of the draft that came out of the steering committee," she says. If so, Kirk adds, efforts to control sprawl and build infrastructure before developing land will be thrown out in favor of relying on the old, disjointed small-area plans as a base on which to build. "It's going back to whatever the large landowners want. It's not going to be a plan that's data driven. It's all been about ignorance and charade."
Rather than surrendering to the tea party, supporters of the tabled plan see conspiracy by the development community, which they allege has worked carefully behind the scenes to lead the comprehensive plan process down a dead-end road. The tea party, they say, provided a smokescreen for developers.
Herndon singles out George Emerson, a longtime developer, who spoke at a Jan. 25 public hearing "adamantly" opposing the plan as a threat to his business. Emerson's appearance was amid a sea of speakers focused on Agenda 21. Just one person spoke in favor of the plan.
"I don't remember a single member who identified themselves with the tea party ever being present at the steering committee meetings," says Herndon, who attended "most" of the dozens of public meetings held over the past two years during the plan's development. "And understand, I'm a supporter of one of the former members [U.S. Senate candidate Jamie Radtke] ... so I understand what they stand for, and I believe in a lot of what they represent."
Emerson, though, defends his opposition and denies clandestine efforts to steer the process into the ground.
"I'm a supporter of private property rights, period," Emerson says, dismissing claims that developers used the tea party. "I think for the first time you're seeing the residents who are tired of having their rights taken away from them are finally standing up."
The insurgency against the plan was entirely grassroots, says Eric McGrane, president of the Richmond Tea Party. The passion behind it was fueled by real concerns about government eroding personal property rights, he notes. McGrane, a Chesterfield resident, was not at the January or February meeting but has actively followed the comprehensive plan. He spoke last year to Richmond magazine about Agenda 21.
Initially, efforts to educate the supervisors on Agenda 21 met with little success. "They were saying, ‘Oh, that's tinfoil,' " he says. But that was before the Republican National Committee in January of this year passed an executive resolution condemning Agenda 21.
McGrane says he hopes the next plan revision is "hitting reset" on some of the objectionable elements of the plan.
Lafayette doesn't see sweeping revision likely. She says — with or without tea party intervention — the board made the right decision in seeking further revision. She says that in the end, rather than Agenda 21 derailing the Chesterfield comprehensive plan, it may have been something far simpler.
"In January of last year, I was very candid and said to the folks in the county, you know, you spent all this money on consultants, and you might have wanted to spend a little bit of money on public relations, and how to roll out the plan and involve people in the plan," she says. "I am going to say [to] any county that wants to work on a comprehensive plan, probably an election year is not when you try to get it adopted."