Commissioners were presented with two options by the Atlanta Regional Commission last spring for meeting a January 2014 deadline that involves obtaining federal money. One option is to comply with the minimum standards put out by the ARC. The other is to go the extra mile and get a “certification of excellence.” Maintaining compliance is tied to the county’s status as a “qualified local government,” a designation that can make the difference when applying for federal grants.
“There are certain grants and loans that are tied to that so if a community doesn’t maintain their qualified local government status then they can lose funding from those particular loans and grants,” said Dana Johnson, county planning manager.
To be considered “excellent,” the ARC told local governments they should offer bilingual services for non-English speakers, promote community gardens and ensure pedestrian and bicycle access in and around bus stops.
Cobb opted for the minimum standards that Johnson says are already being done, such as researching the transportation needs of drivers and pedestrians.
Maintaining those standards won’t cost the county any extra money, he said.
“There’s nothing that’s on the excellence list that is not Agenda 21 in spades,” said Bill Hudson of Marietta, a former board member of the Georgia Tea Party, referring to a United Nations initiative encouraging “smart growth” – a type of development that promotes “sustainable communities.”
This involves “non-motorized transportation” options such as bike paths and sidewalks, and clusters of high-density housing around rail or bus lines. Advocates of the approach say it’s smart to develop communities in a way that depends less on automobiles and creates fewer carbon emissions, with Amsterdam and other European cities serving as the model.
Tea party groups nationwide see the Agenda 21 concept as an enemy of private property rights and the curtailment of the automobile as the primary source of transportation in America.
Hudson said he’s glad the commission didn’t choose to pursue so-called excellence standards but still finds fault with the regional commission and the way compliance is tied to funding. He sees the minimum standards as a sort of “Agenda 21 light” and calls on the county to wean itself from federal grants.
“The counties, the cities, the state government, the school boards, they’re all just hooked on grant money like crack cocaine,” Hudson said.
Cobb shouldn’t take federal grant money, Hudson said, and should live within its own budget.
“The strings that are attached are nothing that anybody wants,” he said of the grants.
Susan Stanton of Kennesaw, who is also involved in the tea party movement, agrees.
“They’ve got to stop listening to the American Planning Association (which represents regional planners) that has an alternative agenda and start listening to residents,” Stanton said.
She maintains the ARC’s goal is to promote more urban-like living in concentrated areas and questions if the ARC is needed.
“There are very few issues that concern all 10 counties that are represented in the ARC,” Stanton said. The commission represents metro Atlanta counties extending from Cherokee County on the north to Henry and Fayette counties on the south.
Who’s calling the shots?
Cobb Chairman Tim Lee says the excellence standards just didn’t make sense.
“The excellence standards would require a lot more money to be spent with very little return on investment,” he said.
Still, he says the ARC doesn’t make local policy decisions. The Board of Commissioners does.
“Anyone that says the ARC is trying to come in and run our government is not up on the facts,” Lee said.
The county takes advantage of grants to move important projects along, he said. Grants can fund anything from road improvements to park development to community centers.
It’s true the county stays in the regional agency’s good graces to be eligible for grants, Lee said, but the county doesn’t follow direction from the group on a whim.
“If it makes sense to accommodate it, we do,” Lee said.