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Dahr Jamail | The Military Wants to Dictate Private Land Use — and Washington State Might Let It

It appears to be part of the military’s national strategy.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

If a new bill in the Washington State legislature is passed, commanders of military bases could have the power to impact land use planning anywhere in the state.

Critics of the bill fear it would be a slide down the slippery slope of allowing the military free reign to do what it wants — wherever it wants to do it — within the state, with little or no recourse by the citizens it could impact. For example, the Navy, which has already expressed a desire to control marine traffic along Puget Sound’s Hood Canal region, could decide to close the waterway to all civilian traffic. Another Navy wish has been to end civilian drone traffic over civilian land near its bases — and it could decide to end it over the entire state. (While many might celebrate the end of drones, it would still be an instance of the military impeding civilian liberties.)

This could mean an expansion of military training exercises into private lands, forcing people to move.

“This is truly alarming and driven by the Department of Commerce’s efforts to militarize our state,” Larry Morrell, a military veteran and founder of the Sustainable Economy Collaborative, a group of residents in Washington’s Island County working to “building a thriving, just, and sustainable” economy, told Truthout.

Morrell, a retired high-tech executive with over 35 years in the semiconductor industry in engineering, marketing and general management, sees the move by Washington State as a misguided effort to generate jobs. He explains that even if jobs are initially created, military jobs are a very unstable employment strategy. For example, Morrell and his group conducted a study that found that a Naval Air Base on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, rather than generating jobs and boosting the local economy, will actually cost taxpayers there $122 million over one 11-year period.

As egregious as that is, it is not Morrell’s greatest concern.

“The alarming piece is the assumption inherent in the bill that the military base commanders can dictate or require [that] the planning for zoning and land use must accommodate their mission, whatever their mission is,” he said. “So, their mission is assumed to be suitable for our state no matter what it is.”

Washington State’s HB 2341 allows the military to dictate what uses shall be allowed, and whether any development shall be allowed on any land in the State of Washington.

This could mean an expansion of military training exercises into private lands, forcing people to move. It could also result in the military flying increasing numbers of warplanes over state and national parks, which is already a major problem across much of Washington State.

Ron Richards, an attorney, engineer, commercial fisherman and former Clallam County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, told Truthout that the bill, HB 2341, which is now in committee, “allows the military to dictate what uses shall be allowed, and whether any development shall be allowed on any land in the State of Washington.”

Richards called the bill “atrocious.”

Some critics of the Washington State legislation worry it could be part of a larger strategy the Department of Defense is using across the country.

A Multiple Violation of the Constitution

Washington State’s HB 2341 essentially cedes control of land use to the commanders of military bases by way of granting the Department of Defense (DOD) the status of equal partner in planning, under Washington State’s Growth Management Act. This creates a structure that solidifies the status of the DOD as an equal partner in any planning for land use, transportation planning and spending priorities.

The bill was drafted by The Spectrum Group, which has been the go-to beltway consulting group hired by Washington State’s Department of Commerce (via the Washington Military Alliance, or WMA) to assist in making all of Washington State “more compatible” with military activities, according to the WMA website.
It is worth noting that the WMA was convened and supported by Washington’s so-called “green governor” Jay Inslee. It uses taxpayer money to fund studies supportive of bringing more military jobs to the state.

The bill would give any commander of any military installation operated by the United States armed services within or adjacent to Washington State sole authority to determine whether incompatibility exists.

HB 2341 is sponsored by Washington Rep. Kristine Reeves (D), who is also, not coincidentally, the executive dirrector of the WMA.

“Kristine Reeves is double dipping, although it might be legal, [by] being the executive director for the Washington Military Alliance while proposing laws that advance the objectives of the WMA as a Washington State legislator,” Glen Milner, a researcher with the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, told Truthout.

“In addition, the Washington Military Alliance gets its grants from the DOD,” added Milner, who has been tracking the expanding militarism across Washington State for decades. “I suppose this is just corruption at work.”

Furthermore, Richards pointed out several examples of how the bill violates the constitutions of both Washington and the United States. According to Richards, the legislation prohibits local governments from allowing “incompatible development” in the vicinity of a military installation. He explains that the bill would give any commander of any military installation operated by the United States armed services within or adjacent to Washington State sole authority to determine whether incompatibility exists.

By handing United States military commanders control of the state’s land use powers, the bill violates Article 1, Section 18, of the Washington State Constitution, according to Richards. That provision unambiguously states: “The military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.”

Richards explains the legislation also violates the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution, which reserves to the states powers not granted to the federal government.

By outlawing all land uses that might be incompatible with present or future missions of United States military installations, Richards says the bill accomplishes an “inverse condemnation” of property. “This is prohibited by Article 1, Section 16, of the Washington State Constitution,” he said.

Richards says the bill also violates Article 1, Sections 8 and 10 of the US Constitution, which require the federal government (not state governments) to provide for our national defense. The legislation enlists the State of Washington in the business of funding United States military operations through (inverse) condemnation of land for military purposes, and the provision of military housing.

The legislation “blatantly violates several of the most basic, well understood, and important provisions of the Washington and United States Constitutions,” Richards said.

Richards sees the bill as an attempt to foist the cost of the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion tax cut onto the states, and is perplexed by the Democratic Party members’ support. (Reeves and Inslee are both Democrats.)

Morrell agreed with this point, adding, “It’s our own government at the state level handing power and money to the military. As if they needed more!”

Joint Land Use Studies

The vehicle by which the military is influencing land use across Washington is called the Joint Land Use Study (JLUS).

If HB 2341 becomes law, it would force local governments to incorporate the military’s plans into their own regulations.

JLUSs are, according to the US DOD’s Office of Economic Adjustment, tools that “assist installation commanders and local community leaders” in collaborating “in an effort to ensure local civilian development is compatible with ongoing military activities,” according to Patrick O’Brien, director of the Office of Economic Adjustment, as per the November 2006 Joint Land Use Study Program Guidance Manual.

This process generally plays out in a way that favors military control: First, the military conducts a JLUS, then the government enacts laws and regulations to militarize land uses.

Milner has watched the Navy use JLUSs to squash development along Washington’s Hood Canal region, as well as other areas that could grow nearer to Naval bases.

If HB 2341 becomes law, it would force local governments to incorporate the military’s plans into their own regulations.

“The purpose of this thing is to make it look like they had an intelligent exchange of issues between civilians and the Navy, but this never happens,” Milner said. “If the Navy had a plan — wondering how they could get what they want out of the community — they couldn’t have a better plan than how this is set up right now.”

Milner notes that a JLUS never investigates military impacts on land, so while civilian land use is always subject to impact studies, the military’s actions are not, when it comes to the JLUS.

Moreover, Milner says, the Washington legislation comes at a time when the military is already expanding its presence in the state, “with more exotic military hardware and military operations.” Meanwhile, the state’s civilian population is increasing.

Milner is also concerned about the fact that the military wants counties and cities to incorporate the military’s JLUSs into their growth management, but require counties and cities to adopt their JLUSs in order to be eligible to submit requests for government funding for projects.

“So, if their highway needs repairs, or the municipality needs help or funding, if they don’t adopt the JLUS, they won’t get any funds,” Milner said. “So, if you don’t do what the military wants, you don’t get any funding for your needs.”

A National Problem

Morrell describes how the interests of the state’s residents have been sidelined in discussions around the bill.

“Who has asked the citizens and communities if they want this strategy?” he asked. “And all the reports are completely biased toward all the ‘good’ the military comes with — none of the costs to the community, as environment, health or economic are considered. The military footprint, in all those dimensions, is never publicly discussed or considered by lawmakers.”

Morrell, whose aforementioned study dives deeply into the ways in which military bases cost communities money rather than boosting their economies, brings his research to bear in evaluating HB 2341. He sees taxpayers funding the entire enterprise, starting with the $25 million per year that has already been authorized by Washington State’s Department of Commerce to move people or buy property in order to accommodate new land use that base commanders might decide they need.

“So, we must pay three times,” he said, “first in our federal taxes, second for local services to the military — schools, roads, etc., as bases don’t pay any property taxes, and people shopping on the bases don’t pay any sales taxes, so this deficit in a tax base is made up by others living in the area — and thirdly, from our tight state budget, and give it to the military so they have more playground to use.”

Morrell is now investigating other parts of the country where this tactic is being employed. He is concerned it could be a strategy that will be — or, perhaps, already is — deployed nationally, happening quietly, often without the knowledge of state residents. The use of JLUSs has already been an issue in Alaska, and Morrell is looking into their use in other areas of Washington State, Virginia, and several other states.

He explains that the Washington State bill is “untethered” — very flexible in how the military could use it. It therefore makes for a strategy that could lead to unprecedented military expansion throughout the country if it is replicated elsewhere.

“They could say a military mission can encompass virtually anything,” Morrell said. “The military could say, ‘Well, that is an activity that won’t work to carry out there because we are planning to operate there….’ That could be anything from a residence to a business.”

For example, Morrell is worried the military could literally dictate where a wind farm could be built, or not. Another example: In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the military is aiming to add 700,000 acres around the perimeter of a bombing range.

Carol Miller, a researcher and member of the Peaceful Skies Coalition in New Mexico, told Truthout that as of January 2012, the military had already completed 92 JLUSs around the country in the vast majority of states.

“We’re not a military dictatorship; we’re supposed to be a democracy,” Morrell said. “The military is supposed to work for us, not the other way around.”

During a discussion of the purpose of the WMA in 2016, Rep. Reeves told Crosscut that 56 percent of all the military revenue coming into her state was reliant upon the Navy.

“Our focus is how do we partner at the state level to ensure that this $13 billion dollar industry, representing over three percent of our GDP, is strategic about investments being made?” Reeves said. “We’re not necessarily interested in whether nuclear weapons are good or bad. What we are interested in is furthering the great partnership with the US Navy from a public-private perspective, economic perspective and environmental.”

Reeves’s comments about nuclear weapons stem from the fact that 20 miles west of Seattle sits the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the US, and likely in the world — a prime target if thermonuclear war were to ever break out.

At the time of this writing, Truthout’s request for comment from Rep. Reeves has not received a response.

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