Interim Geauga County Commissioner Walter "Skip" Claypool joined a rant from Tea Party activists in Ashtabula County at last month's Northeast Ohio's Sustainable Communities Initiative board meeting. He called sustainability and the goals of the regional planning effort of more than 100 organizations a fundamental threat to the country. Activists claimed NEOSCC was part of Agenda 21—a UN document that lays out a vision for sustainable development which was adopted by President George W. Bush. Tea Party activists complain that, if enacted, Agenda 21 will diminish personal property rights and private car ownership. The fireworks start around minute 23 of this video.
Claypool inferred that Agenda 21 has already wormed its way in to the 'guts' of laws being passed in Washington, from healthcare to transportation. He singled out MAP-21, the $82 billion Transportation Bill that Congress passed in June and that merges programs for biking and walking and shrinks project funding from $1.2 billion to $800 million.
"While the new law significantly cuts available funding for biking and walking projects, this legislation presents an opportunity for Americans to encourage state and local governments to fully utilize available funds to make biking and walking safer and more convenient," America Bikes writes in its analysis of MAP-21.
Whether you agree with him or not, Claypool and the two Tea Party activists represent three more public comments than were heard by NEOSCC board members in Cleveland.
Why has NEOSCC struggled to gain traction? How can it influence our thinking about sustainable development in cities, suburbs and towns? Are we all affected by what our neighbors do, or is that just socialism?
More importantly, what has happened to environmentalism here? Is the lack of public comment on a big issue like the sustainable future of the region an indication that the environmental movement here is...not well organized. Are we ceding our opportunity to the Tea Party? Maybe we feel like the important statements on a clean, healthy vibrant future will eventually come from the NEOSCC board or our 'leaders'. That they have us covered. But, what the environmentalists' silence supplies is a vaccuum that now a few Tea Party members have filled. Where's the indignation, or at least, the concern?
NEOSCC insists the goal is not to tell cities what to do, but to arm them with data on the costs of haphazardly placed development. What are the long term costs to each of us, as private property owners, in maintaining ever more roads, sewer / water lines, flooding, pollution, disinvestment, empty big box stores, etc.?
It's more than a thought exercise as cities continue to act alone, supporting development that continues the low-density high mileage pattern of the last few decades. How long can we expect to push off these costs to another day? The problem with acting alone and not being honest to ourselves—you wake up one day, look in the mirror and a flabby, tired looking stranger is staring back, and holding a big bill. NEOSCC has done a fine job collecting data on how the region has sprawled outward over the last half century. It's Trends and Conditions report looks at key metrics, that, when taken together, paints a pretty bleak picture: Development on green space (up 4 to 5 percent) as population slid by 7 percent. The costs are found everywhere—in crumbling and abandoned houses (up to 10 percent), which affects all of our housing values.
Sprawl puts a higher burden on our wallets: living in a suburb here means giving up almost half of your income to housing and transportation.
NEOSCC produced a 7-county land use map that revealed how current zoning will lock us in to more costly sprawl. NEOSCC is trying, valiantly, to start a conversation about these land use trends. To talk about the underlying costs of doing business as usual. The initiative is rightly considering how to make data compelling for the busy person. It will produce scenarios to spark new ideas about what sustainable development here can look like. It's up to us to do the rest. To stop seeing sprawl as someone else's problem.