Regional Planning in the New Era of Tea Party and Property Rights Activism


SPRING, 2014 -- The population of the nine counties that make up the Bay Area is expected to swell from seven to nine million by 2040. The task set out for regional planners in recent years has been to determine where this ever-increasing number of people might live and how they will get to work, school, and shopping via increasingly congested roadways in coming decades.

Added to their calculations, planners must factor in another urgent challenge: complying with state legislation requiring a steady reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when transportation funding is in short supply.

Some might say formulating land use plans for the future, while balancing a variety of transportation and sustainability needs are praiseworthy goals.

But as Karen Trapenberg Frick, an adjunct professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and Assistant Director of the University of California Transportation Center reports in an article for which she recently received a “best paper” award from the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA,) praise for regional planners has been in short supply of late.

In her paper, “The Actions of Discontent: Tea Party and Property Rights Activists Pushing Back Against Regional Planning,” she presents two case studies, one focused on the San Francisco Bay Area, the other on Atlanta, Georgia, to describe how and why the efforts of regional transportation planners have come under siege.

Plan Bay Area

In 2008 the Bay Area’s regional planning agencies, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), were asked to develop a long-range plan to guide decisions about land use and affordable housing as well as determine where to invest transportation funds for the nine-county area through 2040. State Senate Bill 375, which passed in 2008, mandated the development of the plan in part to reduce greenhouse gases in the state.

In 2010, the plan’s framework was presented and more than 250 public meetings were held throughout the nine counties, along with telephone polling and meetings with focus groups. An integral element of the plan is the establishment of Priority Development Areas (PDAs), chosen by local city or county governments to receive transportation funds for developing compact, mixed-use areas near transit that include affordable housing.

In 2013 the final Plan Bay Area was adopted. Lawsuits quickly followed. Opposition to the plan came from across the political spectrum: from Tea Party and property rights activists to environmental groups and business organizations to other members of the public not affiliated with organized groups.

“Some felt Plan Bay Area was an affront to their core values,” Trapenberg Frick explained recently. “They viewed regional agencies as unconstitutional government overreach. Even though board members are largely elected officials appointed to the board, activists felt they were not accountable to voters because they were not directly elected to these posts. Others felt that higher density development as envisioned through PDAs is not needed. Still others questioned the increased costs new development would bring and its impacts on schools and public services like police and fire.”

What I realized is that when we talk about sustainability in our own circles we talk in an echo chamber.

More than 2,000 miles away, in Atlanta, the state of Georgia in 2010 designated 12 regions in which voters would be asked to approve a one percent sales tax for transportation projects. The Atlanta Regional Commission provided staff to a regional planning committee of elected officials whose job was to develop a list of potential transportation projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion and improving economic growth.

Numerous public meetings, town halls, and focus groups were held to solicit ideas for transportation projects throughout the region. One hundred and sixty projects, including freeway exchanges, rail service and bus service upgrades, were eventually chosen to receive funding.

The plan had the support of the business community, among others, but in the end, 63 percent of the population opposed the measure. Tea Party and property rights groups led a powerful opposition.

The Internet’s Influence

Trapenberg Frick, who worked for the MTC for almost ten years in the 1990s before coming to teach at UC Berkeley, found herself exploring both events more or less by accident. While preparing to teach a studio class in early 2012, she searched online to find information for students who would be asked to observe Plan Bay Area public meetings as part of their studies.

“I was looking for information about where the public meeting would be held, as well as some background related to the plan. Instead, I stumbled upon several YouTube videos in which Tea Party and property rights activists and others were arguing with presenters at public meetings regarding the plan and the planning process.”

Karen Trapenberg Frick (right) receives a "best paper" award on April 29 from Arizona State University's Sandra Rosenbloom at JAPA's annual meeting in Atlanta. (Photo by Joe Szurszewski, ©2014 American Planning Association.)

She realized that the planning process had been very different during her tenure at MTC because the Internet was still in its infancy then. Meetings were often taped but very few people wanted or asked for access to them. The Internet changed all that.

“Back in the 1990s, I saw a very different group of people coming to meetings, people who were concerned about social and environmental justice and who wanted more transit service.

“What I was seeing on YouTube and social media in 2012 was very different. These videos showed residents fiercely concerned about property rights, fearful that the government was over-reaching, “ she said. “Some were convinced that United Nations Agenda 21 was guiding planners to use sustainability as a way to get to a predetermined outcome of sustainable development.

“What I realized is that when we talk about sustainability in our own circles we talk in an echo chamber. Part of that is rooted in the planning profession. We and others are trying to undo past wrongs—like building freeways through poorer communities or contributing to the demise of many central cities, for example—and in the process we may lose track of other concerns.”

“As a researcher it was very interesting to see, and more importantly to learn more about how deeply concerned people were about these issues,” she said.

As a researcher, she also realized she had a rich new source of information. She searched out websites, attended meetings, and scoured social media and public documents. Then she began interviewing people on both sides of the issues, in the Bay Area and in Atlanta.

After listening to hours of conversations she began to see the nuances of various positions and discovered a lot more areas of agreement than she expected.

Surprisingly, one of those areas was transit. In Atlanta she had anticipated that those voting against the sales tax were also anti-tax, anti-transit, and anti-bicycle and pedestrian modes. Instead, she found that some of the things people objected to were “things that we on the research side have been saying for awhile.”

Opponents of the sales tax were concerned about the high capital cost of rail service and running transit where it was most needed, not where few people were using bus service and not where the fare box recovery ratio is only 20 to 30 percent.

Some said they weren’t opposed to taxes or tolls on roads per se, they just feared too much money would be wasted in the process.

She began to find possible links between sides. Others already had.

Strange bedfellows

In Atlanta, the Tea Party and other property rights groups were able to create a pragmatic tactical partnership with not only the Sierra Club, which opposed the project list of the proposed funding plan, but also, loosely with the NAACP, which felt a proposed bus rapid transit line was a down grade of what had once been promised: a rail extension.

Tea Party and the Sierra Club leaders, who had encountered one another previously while giving testimony before the state legislature on other issues, teamed up against the sales tax and developed a joint platform of opposition.

“Some thought this was perhaps just a flash-in-the-plan coalition, but they’ve been able to endure so far,” said Frick.

After the election, they continued to find common ground in the area of solar energy, among other topics, and formed the Green Tea Coalition in the summer of 2013.

Based on her research for this and another related paper, which she co-authored with David Weinzimmer and Paul Waddell, “The politics of sustainable development opposition: State legislative efforts to stop the United Nation’s Agenda 21 in the United States," published recently by the journal Urban Studies, Trapenberg Frick makes several suggestions for how planners can begin to overcome this great and growing divide.

“The planning community should not dismiss the opposition of Tea Party and property rights advocates,” she warned. “These activists could catalyze new coalitions of opponents if planners do not attend to the substantive and procedural concerns of participants.”


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