MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan — Construction could soon begin on a controversial housing project for Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni as the realignment of U.S. forces in the region continues to consume this small base outside Hiroshima.
Japanese officials have declined to say when work will begin at Mount Atago — which was partially leveled for landfill to build a heavy-lift runway at the base — but contracts were awarded in March, and officials recently met with residents to address noise and safety concerns.
Plans call for the housing project to be completed by May 2015, said a Chugoku-Shikoku Defense Bureau spokesman, who spoke on customary anonymity.
The work is a critical step forward as Iwakuni prepares for its population to double to about 10,000 by 2017, following the move of Carrier Air Wing 5 from Naval Air Facility Atsugi as well as VMGR-152, a KC-130 squadron from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The moves are part of the realignment of U.S. forces in the region that also includes moving 4,700 Marines and their families to Guam.
Atago will feature 270 officer housing units and a sprawling shared-use recreation complex complete with a cultural center, tea room, baseball and soccer fields and indoor volleyball and basketball courts.
Local Japanese residents sued the Japanese government in 2009 over the proposal after plans for a public housing project fell through, leaving the city and prefecture governments in debt. Prefecture officials then balked at selling the property to the national government before relenting in March 2012. City officials at the time requested the sports facilities and no additional burden on residents.
Both Carrier Air Wing 5 and VMGR-152 were supposed to relocate to Iwakuni by 2014 but were delayed by complications in securing the land rights, moving support facilities and building on- and off-base housing.
Iwakuni residents have complained about safety and disruptions as roads and facilities were changed or their use prohibited over the past few years.
“When you rebuild 77 percent of a base in just a few years, there are going to be challenges for everyone,” MCAS Iwakuni spokesman Gunnery Sgt. Nathaniel Garcia wrote to Stars and Stripes. “We believe the base population understands the situation and continues to pull together.”
A heavy-lift runway was completed in 2010, and a commercial flight terminal followed a year later. The new Marine Aircraft Group-12 flight line has been commissioned, and its aviation maintenance facilities have been completed. Unit relocations are underway. A new steam generation plant and tactical aircraft refueling system also are finished.
“Soon, the old aviation facilities will be demolished to support additional construction,” Garcia wrote. “Although the facilities commissioned to date have been mostly operational, we will soon receive services- and quality of life-related facilities… The good news is that the majority of utility work will be finished this year, and the amount of major road changes and impacts should begin to stabilize, if not decline, in the relative near term.”
Iwakuni residents also can expect construction to wrap up shortly on a new commissary, post office and expansions of the Kintai Inn and the Command Assembly Hall.
New elementary, junior high and high schools are expected to be completed by March 2016. There are plans to build 790 on-base housing units by 2017; work already has begun.
There will also be a larger Marine Corps Exchange, a new firefighting facility, a new flight simulation facility, gate improvements and administrative and flight operations-related infrastructure.
“Overall, we are on track,” said Garcia, adding that the overall project is about two-thirds complete.
The defense bureau spokesman said it was premature to provide a final cost as some items are still in the planning stages; about 90 billion yen (approximately $900 million) has been budgeted for fiscal 2014.
Another sign that the plan is on track was revealed this week when Japanese Ministry of Defense officials announced that facilities related to the KC-130s, including the aircraft parking apron and hangars, had been completed and turned over to the U.S. military as of May 30, a spokesman told Stars and Stripes.
Advanced parties from VMGR-152 began moving to Iwakuni from Futenma in March, Marine officials in Okinawa said this week. The main body of the squadron, including 870 Marines, civilian employees and family members, is tentatively scheduled to begin moving in June and be completed by the end of September. Their 15 KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft are expected to have full operational capability by April 2015.
Despite the move, the aircraft will still maintain a presence on Okinawa, officials said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Hana Kusumoto and Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.