A Lubbock County judge's comments last week that President Obama might cede U.S. sovereignty to the United Nations and spark a civil war have been widely ridiculed. But concerns about U.N. overreach are gaining ground, with the attacks mostly focused on a 20-year-old nonbinding U.N. resolution called Agenda 21.
Texas critics of the resolution have seen their fears echoed by activists at city council meetings around the state and adopted by some of the state's Republican leaders.
Agenda 21 was signed by more than 170 countries, including the U.S., in 1992 and aims to encourage governments to promote environmentally friendly development such as preserving open spaces and discouraging urban sprawl. A variety of organizations around the world promote similar principles.
Such issues have become of particular concern in fast-growing Texas. Many regions are struggling to integrate a steady stream of new residents while avoiding gridlocked roads and retaining communities' character.
Critics of Agenda 21 view it as a sinister effort by an international organization to tell communities what to do and a blatant infringement on private property rights.
Dean Almy, director of the graduate program in urban design at the University of Texas at Austin, has taught classes on Agenda 21, and described the resolution's 1992 adoption as an important moment in the history of urban design.
"It has to do with the way our cities are managed," Almy said. “They’re basically saying things like, ‘It’s good to build more compactly. It’s more sustainable. It’s better ecologically. You use less cars, burn less fossil fuels.'"
Ted Cruz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate who will speak at the Republican National Convention this week in Tampa, has a page on his campaign website devoted to Agenda 21, describing the measure as an effort to abolish “golf courses, grazing pastures and paved roads.”
“It’s ostensibly to promote sustainable development and it manifests at the local level in all sorts of initiatives that seek to undermine property rights and undermine our economic liberty,” Cruz said on Glenn Beck’s radio show in January. He added later in the program, “More broadly, it’s about putting the tentacles of the United Nations into the very foundations of our government throughout this nation.”
The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution in January against Agenda 21 as “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control.” The Texas Republican Party followed suit at its state convention in June, adding opposition to Agenda 21 to the party’s platform.
Almy said Agenda 21 has traditionally had greater sway in other countries, where some cities will explicitly cite the resolution in their development plans. Yet over the past year, he's noticed it cited frequently by conservative activists and groups in Texas and other states amid protests on sustainability projects.
"It’s changing the status quo of how we operate as a country that is developing, and so it’s threatening to some people," Almy said. "Urban design by its nature is about the collective good, and it isn’t necessarily about the freedom of any one person to do whatever the hell they want."
In Garland, an effort by city leaders to approve a 2030 plan to guide development was delayed by months by residents who believed the plan was a plot to incorporate Agenda 21 principles into city government, according to Mayor Ronald Jones. He said he and other city leaders had never heard of Agenda 21 until critics brought it up.
“They were convinced I was part of a conspiracy,” Jones said at a transportation conference in Irving this month. “That after being involved in neighborhoods all my years, after becoming mayor, I had abandoned my commitment to work with citizens and neighbors and now I was part of a grand scheme to deceive the people.”
Houston City Councilwoman Helena Brown cited Agenda 21 in voting “no” on some energy-efficient building projects in April.
In College Station, City Councilman Jess Fields successfully pushed for the city to drop its membership with the U.S. chapter of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, a nonprofit that helps cities develop sustainability projects and is often targeted by Agenda 21 critics.
“It is an insidious, extreme institution that does not represent our citizens, and for our taxpayers to continue to fund it would be ridiculous,” Fields wrote on his blog.
Don Knapp, a spokesman for ICLEI USA, said the group does not force an agenda on anyone but rather helps local governments save money and energy by pursuing projects those communities want.
"If you look at the work that is actually being done on the ground, it has nothing to do with some conspiracy theory," Knapp said. "It’s really common sense."
Yet a motivated group of activists around the state view such efforts very differently.
On Saturday, the Concerned Citizens of Caldwell County held the First Annual Agenda 21 Symposium in Lockhart. About 25 people attended, according to Tracy Forester, one of the organizers. She said the event came about as she and others wanted to learn more about efforts by the U.N. to exert its control over American communities through initiatives approved by local governments.
“It’s coming up everywhere. City and county governments are passing very restrictive ordinances where you essentially don’t have any rights on your own property,” Forester said. “It absolutely is an attack on our sovereignty.”