Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s neighbors will get a chance to weigh in on roads, noise and threatened wildlife habitat at a series of public forums this week to help shape a plan aimed at securing the military’s future in the South Sound.
Local governments are joining to write land-use policies that would balance the military’s rapid expansion in the South Sound since 2001 with the growing communities that surround JBLM.
They’re writing a Defense Department-funded joint land-use study for the first time in more than 20 years. The last one led the Army to start publishing late-night firing announcements to let neighbors know when they might hear explosions after dark.
The idea is to create recommendations that preserve the South Sound’s usefulness to the military while respecting the wishes of civilian communities, said Pierce County Councilman Doug Richardson of Lakewood.
“The result is sort of a regionalized approach to what to do with land-use planning to ensure the effective operation of the installation,” he said. “National defense is not just a federal issue. It’s also a state and local issue.”
The study is taking place as the military turns from a period of fast growth to a post-war drawdown.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this year asked Congress to let the military close some bases to reduce excess capacity. Lawmakers rejected his request, but military communities across the country are bracing for cuts.
The prospect of deep reductions was a hot topic earlier this month at an open house for civilian agencies hosted by JBLM senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza. More than 100 local government, education and business representatives attended the forum.
The Army is in the midst of a plan to trim its active-duty force from today’s 520,000 soldiers to fewer than 450,000. An outline of the plan is expected to be released this summer.
“The base itself will continue,” Lanza said at the forum. “What I can’t tell you is what does the force structure look like.”
An overview of the South Sound Military Communities Partnership plan for the joint land-use study cites several friction points that have emerged for cities and towns around JBLM.
It notes recent complaints about noise from the Army’s helicopter brigade at the base and the challenges of finding replacement habitat for threatened species that live there. Both of those issues, if not addressed, could crimp Army training.
One major point of contention is a developed area north of McChord Air Field that by Defense Department standards should be mostly vacant because of its proximity to Air Force runways.
In 2007, Pierce County and the Defense Department purchased some of the developed parcels, but about 50 acres remain in private hands. More than 30 businesses employing hundreds of people operate in the area.
JBLM’s workforce numbers more than 55,000 military service members and civilian employees. In 1991, at the time of the last land-use study, the base employed 28,600 people.
Meanwhile, the population of Pierce and Thurston counties swelled by 40 percent over the same period.
The land-use study would influence planning documents for various Pierce and Thurston county governments. Its findings would be considered recommendations rather than binding commitments, said South Sound Military Communities Partnership program coordinator Mary Huff.
Members of the partnership include Lakewood, DuPont, Steilacoom, Lacey, Yelm, Roy, Tacoma, and Pierce and Thurston counties.
People attending this week’s forums can bring up any impacts they believe the base is making on their communities. They are not limited to land-use issues on the partnership’s radar.
“It can be anything and everything,” Huff said.