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JBLM warned against expanding Tacoma elementary school in crash zone. It happened anyway

A Tacoma school in an aircraft crash zone was expanded despite warnings from Joint Base Lewis-McChord about potential danger, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.

A voter-approved $27 million replacement project of Arlington Elementary expanded the building by 16,000 square feet and increased capacity from 325 to 450 students in 2017.

The project wouldn’t have been allowed to proceed under new land-use regulations passed by the city last month, which limit expansion of uses that bring together large groups of people, including schools. The new regulations render Arlington Elementary as “nonconforming,” but it’s allowed to stay.

JBLM officials advised against the expansion project in 2015 because of the school’s location, which is in the base’s accident potential zone (APZ). They are the most likely impact areas if an aircraft crashes.

“Rebuilding at the Arlington Elementary School site instead of a site outside the Accident Potential Zone is not advisable,” Army Col. Daniel Morgan wrote in a 2015 letter to the city of Tacoma when the district was seeking permits. “Statistically speaking, the risk of loss of life or injury from an aircraft accident is small. However, if a crash were to occur at the school site, the result would be catastrophic.”

In response, Tacoma Public Schools said Arlington Elementary was constructed six years prior to “any military presence at what is today JBLM.” The school was built in 1919, making this year its 100th anniversary. Arlington had 369 students enrolled as of May 2018, according to OSPI.

The district also argued that plans to replace the school had been in the works for a decade and would be “financially infeasible” to relocate.

In a notice of decision awarding a conditional-use permit dated Jan. 26, 2016, the city of Tacoma recognized JBLM’s concerns but considered the “history of the school in the neighborhood, the location of the school central to the attendance area, the investment value of the property, as well as the location of the school on the outer edge of the APZ II.”

“The District has responded to the letter from JBLM and has determined that maintaining the school at its current location is the best decision for the District,” the decision stated.

Arlington is located within a 200-acre area in South Tacoma that’s within JBLM’s APZ II. The area is bordered by 80th Street, Prospect Street, South Tacoma Way and 72nd Street. Arlington Elementary is the only school in the zone, with the surrounding area mostly occupied by single-family dwellings.

“The accident potential in APZ II is less than APZ I, but still possesses a significant potential for accidents,” JBLM documents state.

While discouraged, land-use requirements in 2017 did not prohibit the project.

Now, they do.

Tacoma City Council approved a Land Use Overlay for APZ II on June 26 that prevents future development that would increase densities or promote large-scale gatherings. That includes places like schools, day care centers with more than 12 children, hospitals, carnivals, hotels and theaters.

Under the new code, Tacoma Public Schools could repair or make facility upgrades but is not allowed to add capacity, city planner Larry Harala said.

Barbara Hopkins, a Tacoma resident within APZ II who’s a teacher, voiced concern over the safety of Arlington students at a June 18 city council meeting.

“When a lot of people knew about this and go ahead and (built) that elementary school, they put our kids at risk,” Hopkins said. “And to me, as a grandparent, I’m a school teacher — I just find it outrageous. I do think that somebody has to be responsible for that and that school needs to be moved.”

There’s currently no plan to communicate with families about Arlington’s location in an APZ, said district spokesman Dan Voelpel, but now that the land-use overlay has passed, the district plans to notify families at the start of the school year.

“We’re always concerned for the safety of our staff and students,” Voelpel told The News Tribune.

Harala suggested moving the school in the future.

“Maybe over the very long term, the district may hopefully consider a relocation,” Harala said at the council meeting.

It’s unlikely Arlington will be moved to a new location any time soon.

“Given the construction of the new school there, it’s unlikely we would require another major upgrade for at least 50 years,” Voelpel said.

About 6 percent of aircraft crashes occur in an APZ II nationally, according to Air Force data supplied by the city of Tacoma. Between 1968 and 1995, 47 accidents have occurred in an APZ II, accounting for 5.7 percent of total crashes.

JBLM spokesman Joseph Piek said he’s unaware of any crashes occurring within the zones at JBLM in recent years. In December 2011, a crash involving two helicopters killed four soldiers, but the crash was well outside an APZ near the town of Rainier in Thurston County. The incident was the “deadliest training accident in recent memory,” according to The News Tribune archives.

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