The latest bugaboo troubling local Tea Party groups is Seven50, a long-range (50-year) plan for sustainable development in the seven South Florida counties from Indian River through the Keys. Though the planners of Seven50 have no enforcement power whatsoever, the Tea Party sees the hidden hand of a "tyrannical" federal government at work, acting on behalf of a U.N. scheme, no less, to rob them of property and "liberty."
The planners are alleged to use a form of mind control, "the Delphi technique," to brainwash the public. A flash point of Tea Party concern are remarks made by Seven50 consultant Andres Duany, a world-renowned, Miami-based architect/urban planner. Some environmentalists on the political left are also Seven50 skeptics. But the big noise and paranoia comes from the political right.
Still under development, Seven50 is the creation of the Southeast Florida Regional Partnership, a collaboration of counties, cities, and civic and business groups that originated in 2010 with $4.2 million in funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It describes itself as:
a blueprint for growing a more prosperous, more desirable Southeast Florida during the next 50 years and beyond... to help ensure socially inclusive communities, a vibrant and resilient economy, and stewardship of the fragile ecosystem in what is quickly becoming one of the world's most important mega-regions.
Since June 2012, Seven50's planners have met with the public in a series of "summits" and workgroups. Meetings of its executive committee have also been open to the public. The planners make heavy use of social media.
Opposition to Seven50 in Indian River County emerged last fall around a conspiracy-minded group called the American Coalition 4 Property Rights, which propagates the U.N. "Agenda 21" charge. (Seven50's response to that claim is here.)
The group's claims have the support of Vero Beach Mayor Craig Fletcher, who at a May 21 City Council meeting denounced Seven50 as "a bunch of radicals" and planner Duany as "a clown." (Here's video of his version of what he heard at a May 17 Seven50 meeting.) Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari has voiced similar complaints. The City of Vero Beach, Indian River County, the Town of Indian River Shores, and the Indian River School Board have opted out of the Seven50 process.
Duany's May 17th remarks have become a Tea Party talking point. Brilliant and imperious, the planner expressed his frustration with tax burdens and regulatory red tape (which conservatives should love) but spoke incautiously, using the phrase "ruthless capitalism" and referring to the supposed efficiencies of fascism. Of Seven50, he said, at one point, "You should just trust us and pass it."
We reached out to Duany for comment on the Tea Party rebellion. In an email he replied:
As it happens, after a few months (in a a somewhat hostile listserv) of making the case FOR the standing of the Tea Party, I had some recent experiences that forced me to better understand the challenges. I found that about 10% of them are extremely thoughtful and well informed; they are essentially correct in their concerns. Then at least 50 percent are active because they have undergone some awful personal experiences with red tape. They will respond to any prospect of reducing bureaucracy*. And there are the rest who, I was shocked and disappointed to find out, are simply inaccessible to reason and act like maniacs. Incidentally, the Left seems to have similar ratios in its makeup. Fortunately, I think that I can probably engage with that 10-60 percent that is open to reason.
Seven50's critics on the left include the Sierra Club's Drew Martin, who has diligently attended planning group meetings. His take is diametrically opposed to the Tea Party's, arguing that planners are "driving the process to the right." "The flavor of the discussions is very developer-driven," he told New Times, "and not so much on environmental concerns."
The Tea Party attack on Seven50 has so far been confined to the region's northernmost counties. But like the Blob, it oozes forth, in this case southward. On June 29, Indian River County Commissioner Solari, like Paul Revere (he thinks) brought the word to Boca Raton, speaking to a gathering of the faithful in that city's community center. Solari's speech was revealing, gradually peeling away the layers of the Tea Party onion. He started out sounding reasonable enough, delivering the usual short-sighted, half-baked libertarian bromides about "liberty" versus social justice (also delivering a burst of nostalgia, typical of the middle-aged libertarian, for the supposedly idyllic America of the 1950s). He turned it up a notch when citing seat belt laws and building codes as examples of the "coercive arm of the state." (First they tell you how often you can water your lawn; then they imprison you for throughtcrime.) He landed squarely in Camp Crazy with an endorsement of the Delphi mind control claim and in his closing remarks: "Seven50 is not about planning, not about economic prosperity; it is an ideological project to redistribute income -- your income -- in the name of social justice."
In Solari's world, he doesn't have mere policy differences with the planners: They're out to destroy the American Way of Life.
We emailed Solari, asking what evidence he has for his characterization of Seven50. He refused to reply, citing the fact that this column is written under a pen name. "I generally do not reply to anonymous emails," he wrote. That struck us as lame and evasive (there's nothing "anonymous" about New Times), but whatever. Our editor emailed him as well, identifying herself, and again he refused.
We last heard from Solari yesterday afternoon, when he wrote to say that he'd missed our last message to him and that, since we had previously said we'd be posting this column yesterday morning, he assumed our questions were moot. We replied that the column's publication had been delayed and that his reply was still welcome. We've yet to hear back.
There are weird echoes on both sides of this dispute.
The planners have shown poor, um, planning when it comes to their project's tag line: "SE Florida Prosperity Plan" uncomfortably resembles WWII Imperial Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. That plan too had idealistic origins.
For the Tea Party, a great irony is that Duany, their bete noire in this affair, is a prominent architect, like the hero of libertarian goddess Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Rugged individualists, it seems, may be tempted to run roughshod over the masses.
Like canaries in history's coal mine, the Tea Party voices the anxieties of working-class Americans in the ever-tightening grip of actually existing capitalism. They may be reactionaries -- hooked on fantasies of a lost golden age of rugged individualism -- but they are also, despite their manipulation by GOP insiders, authentically populist -- a reflection of the people, or at least a portion of the people. Their fears are worthy of note.
But the Tea Party is grounded in denial, its members seeing themselves as modern-day Daniel Boones, carving lives out of the frontier. The reality is we live inextricably enmeshed and deeply interdependent in a society of great complexity. Duany is right when he says that climate change and globalization are inescapable and that bureaucracies like EPA and HUD aren't going away and must be confronted. Indian River and the Tea Party can bury their heads in the sand, but all that does is leave their asses exposed.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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