After six straight years of fruitless pleas for permission to close unneeded bases, the Pentagon is changing tack. Though Defense Secretary James Mattis testified in October that almost 20 percent of the Pentagon’s real property is surplus and a burden, the 2019 defense budget proposal doesn’t formally request a new BRAC round. Instead, Defense Department Comptroller David Norquist suggested in February that he would be looking for new ways to work with jobs-conscious lawmakers and new ways to use the excess property.
Fortunately, the Pentagon, and particularly the services, do not have to look far to find a second path that may be amenable to lawmakers, particularly those who support such efforts. Enhanced use leases — essentially, deals to allow private developers access federal property — were added to the Pentagon’s toolkit in the 1990s and have been used successfully for decades. The services even have “playbooks” for EULs. Defense leaders and lawmakers should embolden the services to find more of these win-win opportunities.
The Pentagon and Congress should also go a step further to identify areas – to include entire installations – where communities and the private sector could purchase unneeded military land, fully titled. While there are many benefits to leasing, some opportunities require a complete transfer of property for the deal to have a sound business case.
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From Cameron Station in Virginia, where a thriving housing development now sits on land once owned by the U.S. Army, to San Francisco’s Presidio, where a military installation is now a picturesque park providing some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, there are many examples of positive results when the Pentagon and local communities partner on real estate disposition. The key is to identify these opportunities early, with a predetermined transition outcome.
The Pentagon, the private sector, and Congress all have a role to play in ensuring such efforts are a success. Congress should ease restrictions upon DoD’s ability to recommend and implement divestiture of property. This should occur in coordination with the Pentagon’s developing and executing its real property management reform strategy. As a component of such execution, the Department and Services, in exchange for eased restrictions, should be able to update Congress periodically with respect to performance benchmarks and goals, using standardized definitions and practices and utilizing data to drive decision-making.
The services should, through their respective secretariat offices that oversee installation management, identify where excess infrastructure is available for investment and the authorities necessary to repurpose them.
Lastly, the private sector must be responsive to requests for proposal, and should outline what is required to make such deals viable. Local government and community organization buy-in is necessary to help build a viable business case for property reuse and development.