The United Nations is haunting El Dorado County.
Critics of a 20-year-old U.N. document called Agenda 21 are becoming more vocal, blaming it for any number of ills in the county.
Agenda 21 came out of a United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It recommends a framework for nations to develop and grow sustainably that is, with minimum damage to the environment.
Although it was accepted by presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it carries no force of law here.
According to local critics, however, Agenda 21 is environmental extremism responsible for U.S. Forest Service road closures, onerous regulations on family farms, high-density low-income housing projects, a ban on dredge mining, a Highway 50 wildlife crossing, unemployment and maybe even traffic roundabouts.
Those issues resonate with many of El Dorado County's 180,000 residents. The county has growing suburbs near its border with Sacramento County, but is largely rural, and largely federal forestland, as it climbs the Sierra to Lake Tahoe.
The issue has become so heated that the Mountain Democat newspaper in Placerville is publishing a four-part series on Agenda 21. The headline to kick off the series dubbed the U.N. measure "Central Planning on Steroids."
"It mixes environmentalism and socialism," said Kathleen Newell, one of 14 people who spoke against Agenda 21 at an El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting May 15. An anti-Agenda 21 resolution was on the calendar for that day, but was tabled.
Three supervisor candidates George Turnboo, Sue Taylor and Ron Mikulaco attended the meeting to condemn Agenda 21.
Supervisor John Knight, who placed the resolution on the calendar, said in an interview that he wasn't sure he fully understood Agenda 21. But he said he actually supports the kinds of regional planning critics blame on the U.N. measure.
"I don't see any connections at all," Knight said, with respect to the United Nations controlling El Dorado County deliberations.
He said he brought the resolution because he had heard constituents' concerns about Agenda 21 and felt they had to be addressed. It was withdrawn, he said, because the county counsel had concerns about wording. There are no plans to bring it back.
Only one member of the public defended Agenda 21 at the supervisors' meeting.
"What I hear is a lot of fear and misunderstanding," said Jamie Beutler, emeritus chair of California Democrats' rural caucus. "Frankly, I don't see what it has to do with anything on the local level."
Agenda 21 promotes concepts such as focusing growth in urban areas, preserving natural areas for wildlife and decreasing pollution. Beutler lauded some of its principles, which include national sovereignty combined with the responsibility to prevent environmental damage to neighboring countries.
"What in this principle violates or does harm to the interests of the people of El Dorado County?" she asked.
But critics see Agenda 21's fingers in a recently approved Sustainable Communities Strategy approved by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, under Senate Bill 375. The state law authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by favoring certain kinds of development.
The six-county region will grow by 900,000 people by 2035, according to SACOG.
"They're going to take it down to where everybody will have to ride buses and public transportation," said Judy Mathat, a supporter of supervisor candidate Turnboo. She said she has worked to raise the alarm about Agenda 21 since the 1990s.
Turnboo has heard the message. "Basically what they want to do is bring a lot of people out of the rural area, give it back to wildlife," he said.
Critics of Agenda 21 and SACOG often refer to "stack 'em and pack 'em" housing, because of incentives for concentrated housing along transportation corridors.
"This is all about moving toward one-world government," Mathat said. "We're a pawn. Our president's a pawn."
The lines connecting Agenda 21 to federal, state and local government are vague. Critics such as Taylor say decisions made in Congress or by the president show its sway.
Mathat compares the failure to see the connections to a parable about catching wild pigs. The parable says if you put corn out for the pigs to eat and build an enclosure one wall at a time, the pigs will be fenced in before they know it.
"I'm seeing what I think is three sides of the pen," she said.
"It does have a kind of conspiracy theory flavor," said Michael Barkun, an emeritus professor at Syracuse University who studies such movements. "There's no semblance of truth about it," he said.
Supporters of sustainable growth say communities are adopting the strategy on its own merits, not as a result of marching orders from the U.N. Steinberg pointed out that SB 375 requires regional agencies only to make a plan, not to adopt specific regulations.
"That government is making people give up their suburban lifestyle, that is just false," he said.
Instead, the SACOG plan coming out of SB 375 is based on incentives for certain types of development and includes support for rural residential areas, said Matt Carpenter, SACOG director of transportation services.
"It's corn," Mathat says of the state and SACOG incentives, referring to the pig trap.
The issue has not arisen only in El Dorado County. Several state governments have taken up the matter, though it appears none has approved measures against Agenda 21.
In the Bay Area, sustainability planning has met with similar criticisms from people affiliated with the tea party movement, said Steinberg. But he said he had not heard specifically of Agenda 21 before a reporter's call.
Criticism of Agenda 21 is supported by organizations including the John Birch Society, and is widespread enough that the American Planning Association has felt compelled to create a "Myth and Facts" sheet about Agenda 21.
That has, in turn, spawned online attempts to debunk the fact sheet.