CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (Reuters) - Tea Party activist Judd Saul admits that he can sound a little unhinged when he gets talking about an issue close to his heart that most Americans have never heard of.
"Agenda 21 is an elusive enemy that floats in and chokes you gradually," said Saul, of the Cedar Valley Tea Party in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "They want to destroy the middle-class way of life."
"Agenda 21 aims to undermine your property rights and force you" to live in cities, Jake Robinson told Tea Party members at a meeting in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in April.
For Joe Dugan, leader of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party in South Carolina, "Agenda 21 is nothing short of treason."
If you don't know what Agenda 21 is, you're not alone - only about 15 percent of Americans do. It is a nonbinding U.N. resolution signed by more than 170 world leaders (including Republican U.S. President George H.W. Bush) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as a way to promote sustainable development in the face of a rapidly growing global population.
A small percentage of Americans say it is an attack on their very existence - part of a grand conspiracy to take away their gun rights, destroy suburbia and turn America into a modern-day Soviet state.
At a local level across the country, conservative activists linked to the Tea Party movement have rallied around the cause of blocking development they say is part of the conspiracy.
Kim Simac, a member of the Northwoods Patriots in northern Wisconsin, believes a local sustainable development plan will shut down her horse-riding school because her business takes up more land than the plan allows for. Heather Gass says she has been fighting sustainable development plans in the San Francisco area that she says will include hefty road tolls and deliberately drive up gas prices "because they want to force us out of our cars."
"It sounds crazy, but it's true," she added.
Activists dislike the use of multi-unit apartment buildings in city plans - which they call "stack 'em and pack 'em" units - as well as bike lanes and other zoning restrictions they say impinge upon the value of their property and rights.
"Property ownership is the essence of the American dream and a cornerstone of the American economy," said John Anthony, a conservative small business owner in New Jersey who has devoted a lot of time to studying Agenda 21. "When you diminish property values, you shrink the net worth of the entire middle class."
Republicans at the state level have passed or tried to pass laws aimed at Agenda 21 and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), an international association of local governments. ICLEI was formed in 1990, and its promotion of sustainable development at the local government level has made it synonymous with Agenda 21 to Tea Party opponents. Activists have gone after the ICLEI in their attacks and the group has lost 29 U.S. members as a result.
This summer, Alabama passed a property rights bill targeting Agenda 21, which was signed by Governor Robert Bentley - his office did not respond to a request for comment. Anti-Agenda 21 resolutions were also passed in Kansas and New Hampshire.
Campaigners managed to persuade the Republican National Committee to pass a resolution on the "destructive and insidious" plan being "covertly pushed into local communities," and the party's 2012 platform approved in August stated: "We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty."
After all that, things have gone a bit quiet. The issue barely registers in the presidential election campaign, and the Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for a comment.
At a local level, there are signs of a backlash.
A June poll of 1,300 U.S. voters commissioned by the American Planning Association found that when asked whether they supported or opposed U.N. Agenda 21, 85 percent of respondents said they did not know enough to form an opinion. Nine percent supported Agenda 21, 6 percent opposed it.
"I think the Tea Party people who turn up to shout at planning meetings are heading for a McCarthy moment," said Ron Littlefield, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, referring to the Communist witch hunts of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
"They have been heard, and many people are sick of their scare tactics," added the mayor, whom local Tea Party activists have been trying to recall for raising property taxes.
Don Knapp, U.S. spokesman for the ICLEI, rejected the notion of an anti-American plot. "Sustainable development is not a top-down conspiracy from the U.N., but a bottom-up push from local governments," he said.
An anti-sustainable development bill in Arizona died this spring when the Arizona Chamber of Commerce successfully lobbied against it, arguing it was vague and could drive away corporations that have embraced sustainable development.
"We thought this was a wrongheaded approach," said chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor. "It would be bad for business."
Many conservatives also vehemently disagree with the global warming arguments behind Agenda 21. But planners and developers say sustainable development plans are needed to meet future shifts in the size and age of the U.S. population.
According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, America's population should grow by more than 40 percent by 2050 to 440 million, requiring millions of new housing units. Demographers and developers also warn that as baby boomers start turning 70 in 2016 and seek to downsize their homes, there will be a spike in demand for multi-apartment buildings in walkable areas.
"What I want to hear from opponents of sustainable development is where are you going to put 50 million new housing units over the next few decades?" said Mitchell Silver, head of planning for Raleigh, North Carolina, who is also president of the American Planning Association (APA). "So far, I haven't gotten an answer to that question."
Another problem some Tea Party activists acknowledge is that few local officials have heard of Agenda 21. This was the case in Garland, Texas, during a debate on the city's strategic plan. Anti-Agenda 21 activists objected to bike lanes, efforts to determine what types of businesses to allow into Garland and any reference to "sustainable development."
"We found if we mentioned Agenda 21, our officials' eyes would glaze over," said Katrina Pierson of the Garland Tea Party. "So we focused on parts of the plan we didn't like."
Her group managed to have significant portions of the city plan changed and got Garland to quit its membership in the ICLEI.
Judd Saul was not so successful when he went to battle against Cedar Falls 2020, the city's development plan. Saul says his studies of Agenda 21 began after he discovered that the requirement to have a lockbox at the back door of his family's restaurant containing keys for emergency service access to his property was "based on international fire regulations."
Saul says that rather than taking on the parts of Cedar Falls 2020 he disliked most, he focused instead on Agenda 21 at a public meeting to discuss the plan. As almost no one in attendance knew what he was talking about, Saul says his words met with blank stares.
"I wish I'd focused on why the plan was bad," he said, "instead of talking about Agenda 21 and looking like a wacko nut job."
(Editing by Claudia Parsons and Prudence Crowther)