If a broad post-war military drawdown persuades Congress to commission a round of base closures, a report being unveiled Tuesday could provide a key road map for South Sound communities angling to protect Joint Base Lewis-McChord from deep cuts.
It calls on local governments to reignite a decadeslong effort to buy privately owned buildings on the northern edge of McChord Air Field that worry the Air Force and to reassess a major development proposed for Yelm near Army training grounds.
The Pentagon-funded land-use study, to be released at a town hall meeting in DuPont, aims to spotlight conflicts between military training and growth in the civilian communities around JBLM.
To Defense Department planners, new developments that make military training unappealing in urban areas are referred to as encroachment. It’s a factor the military weighs when it decides how to place forces at domestic bases.
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Fewer encroachments would make JBLM look better in comparison to other military outposts if it comes to cuts.
“What (the report) is doing is identifying the ongoing issues that need resolution of some kind to help take pressure off training and operations on base, but also to improve quality of life for communities nearby,” said Tiffany Speir, program manager of the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership.
Until recently, traffic bottlenecks on Interstate 5 represented the greatest drawback to stationing large numbers of troops at JBLM, civilian and military leaders have said.
The congestion frustrated civilians and raised the prospect of military vehicles being constrained from reaching ports and runways in an emergency.
Efforts by the state to expand the road, coupled with post-Iraq war downsizing at JBLM have yielded a plan to reduce that congestion, setting the stage for the military and local governments to start working through other longstanding conflicts.
Founded in 1917 as Camp Lewis, JBLM now is Pierce County’s largest employer and the second largest in the state. It has about 40,000 active-duty and Reserve military service members and about 17,000 civilian workers, according to the land-use study.
Military leaders have been asking Congress to sanction a Base Realignment and Closure commission since 2012, but lawmakers have refused to grant the request.
The Pentagon would prefer to free up money for training by closing underused facilities around the country.
JBLM and its civilian neighbors last participated in a joint land-use study in 1992. Back then, eliminating the industrial and storage buildings at the north end of McChord Air Field stood out as a top priority for Air Force advocates.
They sit in McChord’s “clear zone,” an area the Air Force would prefer to keep vacant in case a jet crashes on a takeoff or landing. That’s an improbable occurrence, but if it happens, it most likely would take place in the clear zone.
“Development should be prohibited in this zone,” the land-use study states. “Any use other than airfield infrastructure (e.g., approach lighting) is incompatible.”
The buildings were not a deal-breaker in the Air Force’s decision to fly out of McChord.
The Air Force doubled down on its investment in McChord in 1999, when it selected the South Sound air field as the hub for what would become its second-largest fleet of C-17 Globemaster cargo jets.
Today, more than 40 of the jets are assigned to JBLM. They fly missions around the world, supporting military and government operations from Antarctica to Afghanistan.
The Air Force and Pierce County made significant headway in clearing out some of the buildings about eight years ago, when they used local and federal funding to buy seven properties on a total of nine acres.
A 2007 study commissioned by Lakewood estimated it would cost $55 million to clear out the other 20 parcels considered too close to the runways.
Since then, the issued dropped to the wayside. A Defense Department fund the Air Force had used to collect more than $3 million to buy property closed, limiting funding for more purchases.
Without a funding source, negotiations between the government agencies and property owners have halted.
“The biggest obstacle right now is there’s no money for this,” said Rob Allen, who has coordinated the purchases as a senior economic development specialist for Pierce County. He called the runway conflicts a “sleeper issue.”
In Thurston County, the land-use study asks Yelm to reconsider safeguards it placed in a 2008 environmental study that assessed the effects of a proposed 5,000-home development called Thurston Highlands.
That study concluded that developers and the city could avoid conflicts with regular Army training by including buffers between homes and JBLM.
“JBLM participated closely with us in developing the study,” said Yelm Community Development Director Grant Beck.
But the prospect of building thousands of new homes near Army training grounds that often feature gun shots, helicopter flights and artillery explosions presents a possibility that new residents will complain about noise and threaten military training at JBLM years from now.
The development has idled since its environmental impact study was published. Beck said portions of the document would be updated if the development begins to move forward again, giving JBLM another chance to weigh in on aspects of it.
“They had a shot at that already,” he said. “When it comes back in they’ll have an opportunity to review that as well.”
Since the pace of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan slowed two years ago, leaders at JBLM have been trying to address unresolved questions about military training in the Northwest.
The Army is considering adding regular off-base flight routes for a mix of aviation units that fly out JBLM’s Gray Army Air Field.
The Army also is assessing whether it can safely test-fire its High Mobility Advanced Rocket System at JBLM without overly disturbing residents and wildlife.
Both training proposals are the subject of ongoing environmental studies.
Military land-use meeting
What: South Sound local governments are releasing a land-use study that describes conflicts between potential development and military operations at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Where: DuPont Emergency Operations Center, 1700 Civic Drive, DuPont.
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday.