South Sound cities must clear path for JBLM

Lt. Col. Nathan Campbell checks over a C-17 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in January.
Lt. Col. Nathan Campbell checks over a C-17 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in January. Staff file, January

The destroying angel passed over the South Sound last summer when the Pentagon spared Joint Base Lewis-McChord from troop cuts that would have left the region in an economic recession.

The potential pain of those cuts should serve as a reminder that our communities and elected leaders must be looking ahead to the next threat. Had the worst happened, the region could have lost nearly $1 billion a year in annual income. As JBLM’s troop strength and payrolls shrank, the ripple effect would have shuttered businesses and thrown people out of work.

With defense budgets tightening, the Army and Air Force will keep on looking at the future of JBLM. Unfortunately, the base has an Achilles’ heel.

JBLM lies inside a fast-growing population center — more than 1 million people now live in Pierce and Thurston Counties — and civilian activities are encroaching on it from every side.

Some privately owned industrial and storage buildings still stand in the “clear zone” just beyond the end of the McChord runway, where a pilot might be forced to crash land.

Pilots want the clear zone to actually be clear. The Air Force and Pierce County bought some of the properties years ago, but a 2007 estimate put the price of the remaining parcels at $55 million. The state — which benefits handsomely from JBLM — may have to come up with some of the needed dollars.

Another problem is common to all loud enterprises. People buy homes next to an airports or artillery ranges — then complain about the noise.

Much of the land near JBLM is zoned for residential development. Newcomers will inevitably complain about the racket from exploding cannon shells, jet engines and helicopter noise. The base handles roughly 20,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

One solution is to require homeowners to disclose the noise to buyers. Another is to require that future construction be sound-proofed. The best solution is to restrict residential zoning close to the base.

State and local efforts to reduce the problems of encroachment will likely impress Pentagon planners. Such efforts are happening: Governments surrounding JBLM, as well as the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the base itself, have formed the South Sound Military & Communities Partnership.

The group recently released a study of the problems and a list of recommendations for solving them. The recommendations aren’t self-enforcing. To make them work, land use plans must be altered and money has to be found — especially to clear that clear zone.

The base’s importance to this region cannot be exaggerated.

It directly employs 57,000 military personnel and civilians; it is the largest employer in Pierce County and the second largest in the state. As of 2009, according to the Partnership, its expenditures were $3.5 billion, and its defense contracts were worth more than $800 million a year to Pierce County.

The South Sound has been fortunate in its geography and in the Defense Department’s past investments in Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The location is close to ideal as a base for military missions in the Western Pacific. The U.S. government has also spent billions here on improvements such as those at Madigan Army Medical Center.

The biggest threat to this relationship is complacency. South Sound communities can’t afford to see JBLM wither, which means they can’t afford to take JBLM for granted.