Some residents say U.N. plot is behind land-use revisions

Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 9:54 AM
David Holub/Special to the Herald; images via Adobe Stock
A flyer explaining Agenda 21 was circulated at a meeting Jan. 16 about proposed changes to the La Plata County land-use code.
A flyer explains the problem with sustainable development. It was circulated at a meeting Jan. 16 about proposed changes to the La Plata County land-use code.

A faction of La Plata County residents who oppose the county’s proposed land-use codes believe the work is part of an international conspiracy led by the United Nations to create a “New World Order.”

“This is the Agenda 21,” said Ignacio resident Dan Percell, who received loud applause at the end of his speech from many of the more than 600 people who attended a Jan. 16 meeting about the land-use codes.

“Agenda 21 is behind it all. Otherwise, where does this stuff come from? The good news, folks, is we can get rid of the United Nations. We don’t have to have a treaty with them here in our county.”

Bob Witt, an Ignacio resident, read from a 2009 essay from the American Thinker, a conservative online publication.

The article states that Agenda 21 reshuffles land rights using favorable words such as “sustainable” and “smart growth” in order to, essentially, force people into government housing or city-states, making them easier to control.

“Most Americans will remain unaware of the implications of smart growth and Agenda 21 until after it is promulgated in their own backyards,” Witt read.

Percell and others are referring to a U.N. document called Agenda 21, which was developed and signed in 1992. Its stated purpose is to help guide local, state and national governments toward sustainable development in the “21st century” – hence the name.

Megan Graham, spokeswoman for the county, said the U.N. and Agenda 21 have had no role in La Plata County’s land-use code revision effort.

“The code comprises the regulations that reflect the policies outlined in the county’s comprehensive plan, which the Planning Commission adopted after two years of community involvement,” Graham said in an email sent to The Durango Herald. “As well, the code embodies the consensus priorities developed by the board of county commissioners and the public at the outset of the revision project in late 2016.”

National contextAgenda 21, which is completely voluntary and non-binding, was signed by then-President George H. W. Bush along with 177 other governments. It offers suggestions on how best to combat poverty, protect natural resources and cut back on pollution.

However, a fringe movement highly suspicious of Agenda 21 formed soon after its release. Tom DeWeese of the American Policy Center became one of the first leaders of the end-Agenda 21, or “Agender,” cause.

“It leads to control over private property, energy use, water use,” DeWeese wrote for the American Policy Center in 2011. “It all means locking away land, resources, higher prices, sacrifice and shortages and is based on the age-old socialist scheme of redistribution of wealth.”

Opposition to Agenda 21 increased when the tea party gained a foothold in politics and political pundits like Glenn Beck popularized the notion that the U.N. is working to strip Americans of their individual constitutional rights.

La Plata County residents turned out in force Jan. 16 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds to voice their opinions about the county’s proposed changes to the land-use code.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file

In 2012, the Republican National Committee formally denounced Agenda 21, calling it a “destructive and insidious scheme” that is “erosive of American sovereignty,” drawing praise from conservative and tea party leaders.

These accusations, over the years, have been cast as conspiracy theories, paranoia, fear-mongering and is also seen as an example of modern-day McCarthyism, an unfounded campaign in the 1950s tying people to communism.

John Culver, a retired California Polytechnic State University professor of political science who has lived in Durango for almost 20 years, said Agenda 21 has always been tied to a longtime distrust of the U.N.

“Before the ink was dry setting up the U.N. (in 1945), there was a fear from some people it was going to lead to a one-world government,” said “Of course, there is nothing to support that.”

Early objectionsThis fall, the La Plata County planning department released the draft of proposed land-use codes that county officials say will help guide growth in a region expected to experience an unprecedented population influx.

The land-use codes, which have not been updated since the 1980s, provide certainty for landowners and developers about what can be done to a particular property. The current regulations are ambiguous, county officials say.

But from the beginning, some county residents have opposed the idea of being told what they can and cannot do with their land and say the codes are an overreach of government and an attempt to take away individual citizen rights.

These critics point to certain aspects of the code that impose development standards along river corridors and some scenic highways, as well as restrictions on temporary storage facilities and required permits for large events on private property.

More controversial is the introduction of zoning. Out of 64 counties in Colorado, La Plata County is one of only five counties without zoning, said Planning Director Jason Meininger. Opponents say zoning laws would likely devalue their property.

Only three people out of about 30 who spoke at the Jan. 16 meeting connected the land-use codes and Agenda 21, but each speech garnered loud applause. Since that meeting, the conspiracy link has gained traction on Durango-centric social media groups on Facebook.

“I don’t care if you call me a conspiracy theorist because I say, if you say you’re not going to fall for conspiracy theory, you already have,” Judy Hendricks said at the January meeting. “Because we’ve got it right now. Agenda 21 is in our country. We need to get it out of La Plata County, out of Colorado and out of our country.”

The Herald reached out to Hendricks last week for additional comment for this story, but she declined.

A history in La Plata CountyAt the local level, Culver said anytime regulations are proposed that involve property rights, there is often a segment of the population that suspects foul play and outlandish plots.

Anti-Agenda 21 beliefs have previously entered local politics when there was the prospect of long-range planning and code implementation in La Plata County.

In 2011, a handful of residents accused the planning department of being under the direction of the U.N. when developing a comprehensive plan. The plan is a policy document to guide future growth and would have served as foundation for land-use codes.

A controversial letter to the editor published in the Herald from then-alternate planning commissioner Art Charette, alerted La Plata County residents that the comprehensive plan would lead to the U.N. takeover plot. The letter led to Charette’s firing.

The comprehensive plan took two years to develop, involved more than 150 public meetings and cost $700,000 in consulting fees, but it was ultimately scrapped.

“They thought we were taking land and taking property rights and going to turn it into a militarized state,” Wally White, who was a county commissioner at the time, told the Herald last week.

“Our planning commission had several extreme right-wingers, and they voted it down, which was a huge disaster.”

While the same line is being drawn to connect Agenda 21 and this version of the land-use codes, it is unclear what specifically in the codes has some residents concerned about the U.N. plot.

Statements made at the Jan. 16 public hearing were mostly ideological arguments. People also distributed Agenda 21 flyers at the meeting, which also do not specifically reference the land-use code. Titles on the flyers were “Why is everyone talking about UN Agenda 21?” and “What’s wrong with sustainable development?” At the bottom of the flyers is a website address: The website says, “We are making common cause with others to end UN social engineering and communitarianism.”

The Herald made multiple attempts to reach people who made Agenda 21 claims but they either did not respond or declined to comment for this story.

The Herald also filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with La Plata County government to review the comments submitted during the public comment period and at the Jan. 16 meeting. Several of the more than 400 comments referenced Agenda 21.

A comment form submitted during a Jan. 16 public meeting about proposed changes to the La Plata County land-use code.

Bayfield resident J. Mondragon wrote that the land-use codes smack of Agenda 21 and an effort for socialist global control over La Plata County.


Terril Kroschel of Durango wrote: “Remove The UN from durango (sic),” he wrote. “You people that are trying to push this through are a prime example of government overreach.”

And James, whose last name is illegible, wrote, simply: “Down with Agenda 21.”

Minority sentimentsFor the majority of residents opposed to the county’s draft land-use codes, calls of a U.N. invasion into La Plata County remain a fringe sentiment.

“I also do not think this is a U.N. plot to take my rights away,” Durango resident Scott Nielsen wrote in a public comment. “I know there are some very outspoken people against this, but many more moderate people such as myself are asking to revisit this plan and make good decisions for future generations.”

For many, the proposed codes do have questionable regulations, such as restrictions on outdoor lighting, requiring a permit for large-scale events at private residences and not allowing people to build structures that could be seen from the river.

“If this was an HOA (homeowners association), fair enough, that would be a different story,” said Bayfield resident Jon Fossel. “But La Plata County is not an HOA.”

County officials have said they will take this round of public comments with the intent to rewrite portions of the code. The plan is to release an updated draft in March, open to public comment. Commissioner Brad Blake, having read the land-use codes three times, said he hasn’t seen the link to Agenda 21, but he does believe necessary changes need to be made.

“I’m not really sure where they’re making that connection,” Blake said in a previous interview. “But the fact is we missed the mark on a few things. My hope is that it will come out a much, much better product.”

Culver said there has never been an example of the U.N. taking over any country, let alone a small U.S. town in Southwest Colorado, through Agenda 21, or any other method for that matter.

“No one has ever called for ceding U.S. authority to the U.N.,” he said. “There are no black-op helicopters in the sky. There are no helmeted troops. You wonder what these people are reading.”

But a fear exists that these types of accusations could derail long-overdue land-use codes.

“If we let this happen folks ... they are going to move us off, every one of us,” Percell said at the public meeting last month. “They’re going to honeycomb us in their little city-states. And it’s all being done behind closed doors.”