Virginia residents oppose preparations for climate-related sea-level rise

December 17, 2011

Over his long career as a public planner, Lewis L. Lawrence grew accustomed to the bland formalities of planning commission meetings in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, where forgetting to cover one’s mouth while yawning through a lecture was about as rude as people got.

But lately, the meetings have gotten far more exciting — in a bad way, said Lawrence, acting executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. A well-organized and vocal group of residents has taken a keen interest in municipal preparations for sea-level rise caused by climate change, often shouting their opposition, sometimes while planners and politicians are talking.

The residents’ opposition has focused on a central point: They don’t think climate change is accelerated by human activity, as most climate scientists conclude. When planners proposed to rezone land for use as a dike against rising water, these residents, or “new activists,” as Lawrence calls them, saw a trick to take their property.

“Environmentalists have always had an agenda to put nature above man,” said Donna Holt, leader of the Virginia Campaign for Liberty, a tea party affiliate with 7,000 members. “If they can find an end to their means, they don’t care how it happens. If they can do it under the guise of global warming and climate change, they will do it.”

Outside of greater New Orleans, Hampton Roads is at the biggest risk from sea-level rise of any area its size in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The water has risen so much that Naval Station Norfolk is replacing 14 piers at $60 million each to keep ship-repair facilities high and dry.

The area has historic geological issues. A meteor landed nearby 35 million years ago, creating the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater. And a downward-pressing glacial formation was created during the Ice Age. These ancient events are causing the land to sink, accounting for about one-third of the sea-level change, scientists say.

This geology is lost in local meetings, where distrust of the local and federal governments is at center stage.

When planners redesignated property as a future flood zone, activists said officials were acting on a hoax. They argued in meetings and on Web sites that local planners are unwitting agents of Agenda 21, a United Nations environmental action plan adopted in 1992 that the activists see as a shadowy global conspiracy to grab land and redistribute wealth in the United States.

“My professional credentials have been challenged,” said Lawrence, who holds degrees in municipal planning and provides professional and technical planning advice to municipalities throughout the peninsula. He said he has heard whispers behind his back after meetings: “I’ve been brainwashed. I’ve been called a dupe for the U.N.”

The uprising began at a February meeting about starting a business park for farming oysters in Mathews County, Lawrence and other planners recalled. The program to help restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population was slated for land owned by the county, but it was shouted down as a useless federal program that would expand the national debt. The proposal was tabled.

As the opposition grew over the summer, confrontations became so heated that some planners posted uniformed police officers at meetings and others hired consultants to help calm audiences and manage the indoor environment, several planners said.

In James City County, speakers were shouted away from a podium. In Page County, angry farmers forced commissioners to stop a meeting. In Gloucester County, planners sat stone-faced as activists took turns reading portions of the 500-page Agenda 21 text, delaying a meeting for more than an hour.

Agenda 21 is an agenda in name only, environmentalists say. The document encourages world governments to consider environmental impacts before developing land or slashing rain forests for resources, said Patty Glick, senior climate-change specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.

“Agenda 21 is the least thing they should be worried about,” said Glick, who like other environmentalists contacted by The Washington Post was surprised at the attention being given the document. “It has no legal or policy implication for local governments in the United States.”

Holt, who began scrutinizing public planning when her interior design business failed after the housing bubble popped, begs to differ. She sees the document as evidence of a global agenda that threatens property rights.

Her suspicions echo those of Tom DeWeese, president of the conservative American Policy Center, who wrote an essay opposing “smart growth” titled “Fight Agenda 21 or Lose Your Freedom.” The ultra-conservative John Birch Society cautions adherents through its Web site that the “Agenda 21 program may already be in your local community, through your home town or city’s membership in . . . Local Governments for Sustainability.”

“I don’t try to shove this down anybody’s throat. I’ve been able to connect the dots,” said Holt, who added that she has spoken against sustainability plans at meetings but doesn’t condone shouting and interrupting speakers. “They’re just doing their jobs.”

Lawrence and other planners have asked counselors for advice on how to control testy audiences. They were told to better explain their plans and recognize people who speak up but also to get rid of standing microphones where angry speakers line up.

“Let them talk, and let them vent,” planner Bruce Peshoff advised. “Sometimes planners . . . are their own worst enemy. They think they have to adhere to a schedule. That just lends to the feeling of oppression.”

In Carroll County planning commission meetings, Agenda 21 kept coming up, said Peshoff, a Kansas planner who was called on to help the county manage its meetings because his firm, Planning Works, emphasizes consensus-building. If the talk took a few extra minutes, “we would go with the flow,” he said. “That way, we didn’t monopolize a meeting.”

In time, a plan that preserved farms by prohibiting economic development that could have enriched some farmers passed, Peshoff said. At the same time, an interstate corridor was designated as an economic generator.

Shereen Hughes, a former planning commissioner in James City County, worried that some officials are giving ground to fearmongers. The uprising against smart growth “is ridiculous” and “a conspiracy theory,” she said.

But it’s effective. Planners aren’t saying this is wrong, Hughes said, because “most are afraid they won’t have a job if they’re too vocal about this issue.” Tea party members have political allies who “might stand up” against planners who complain, Hughes said.

Lawrence, a native of Gloucester County, bristled at being accused of undermining the constitutional rights of Virginians.

“It’s driving public policy sideways,” Lawrence said. “It’s not advancing it. It’s not going backward. The voice of a minority is trying to assert itself as the voice of the majority.”

Nonetheless, he said he has to give a little to get a little. “I welcome them every time,” Lawrence said.

More stories from Virginia, Maryland and D.C.:

Coast Guard searching for boater missing in Chesapeake Bay

Region tries to get a grip on icy roads

Alexandria residents unsuccessful in stopping Arlandia development

Daily Gripe: Government officials respond to complaints from your neighborhood

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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