Completing the clearing of the North Clear Zone on McChord Field is going to take a couple decades, but the critical first step was taken May 11 at Eagles Pride Golf Course on Joint Base Lewis McChord.
Leaders from JBLM and elected officials representing the city of Lakewood, Pierce County and members of the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership signed a memorandum of agreement focused on the North Clear Zone for McChord Field’s runway. The memorandum was signed by Col. Daniel Morgan, Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s garrison commander, Mayor Don Anderson of the city of Lakewood and other SSMCP community partners.
“Solutions can always come through in warming dialogue,” Morgan said. “It’s still a long way to go, but this is an example of that.”
In addition to preserving the clear zone as a habitat for local endangered species, clearing the clear zone is expected to take anywhere from 10 to more than 20 years to complete. The plan involves three stages of purchasing commercial properties within the clear zone while minimizing public risk and continuing operations at McChord Field.
The first phase is expected to take up to five years to complete and cost an estimated $16.1 million to acquire properties closest to the clear zone’s center line. The second phase is expected to take between five and 10 years and cost about $12.3 million. The third and final phase could take up to 20 years and cost up to $31.6 million, officials say.
The memorandum provides the framework for JBLM and local community officials to discuss the necessary funding — approximately $60 million — for purchasing properties within the clear zone. The current Washington State Capital Budget is expected to fund $2 million toward the clear zone project.
The need for a regulation 3,000- by 3,000-foot safety area is required by the Federal Aviation Administration for all commercial and military airfields. When McChord Field was first opened in 1930 as Tacoma Field and when it was transferred to federal government in 1938, such requirements were not established.
Through the years, commercial developments in Lakewood have set up in the area that is within the required clear zone. In 2005, serious discussions began between officials from Lakewood and Pierce County as well as local military leaders about establishing a proper clear zone free of buildings.
The SSMCP completed the JBLM Joint Land Use Study in 2015, which included a big focus on developing the North Clear Zone. Since October 2016, the SSMCP has been formulating a plan of action to bring the zone into FAA compliance; the plan was completed earlier this year.
“The study continues, but the mission is implementation,” said Bill Adamson, SSMCP program manager.
Department of Defense and FAA safety guidelines said there should be minimal to no human presence, and there should be no structures in a clear zone that are not considered air navigation aids. But urban development in Lakewood city limits has limited the possibility of a proper clear zone.
There is a safety concern because of five major accidents — four of which were fatal — have happened since 1940 at McChord Field, according to information presented by Adamson.
The deadliest crash took place in 1952 when a C-54 Skymaster was a mile short of the runway, just missing homes and apartments in the area. Still, 37 people were killed in the accident.
Open houses with different business and property owners took place March 10 and April 4. One of them was hosted by Tactical Tailor. Casey Ingels, the chief executive officer of the company, is aware of the importance of the issue and is already willing to help.
“It would be hypocritical of us to be a roadblock to the clear zone,” Ingels said. “This is important to us because you’re important to us.”
A big reason for concern within the SSMCP is the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which last evaluated JBLM in 2005. An improper clear zone could be a factor in the future of JBLM and the local communities.
“The 100 years behind us and the 100 years ahead of us are counting on this room to get the job done,” said Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County executive.