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CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — Someday, this base will be but a memory.

On Monday, the U.S. military will return to Japan 95 acres of this Marine base, home to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Lester Middle School and a family housing area. It’s all part of a 1996 bilateral agreement to return 21 percent of the land used by the U.S. military on Okinawa.

U.S. military bases cover about one-fifth of the island.

The property to be returned, which once contained a large park and picnic area, lodge and Pacific Rim headquarters for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, someday will be developed into homes and businesses, Chatan town officials say.

But some of the landowners have mixed feelings about the return of more than a third of this base. Comfortable with monthly lease payments from Japan’s Defense Facilities Administration, they are unsure about what the future may bring.

“It is not whether we agree or not agree with the return,” said Sunao Shimabukuro, secretary general of the Chatan Military Landowners Association. “It is a decision made between two governments and we have no choice but to accept it.”

Shimabukuro, 50, is a second-generation military landowner. He is one of 342 landowners on Camp Lester, which Okinawans call Camp Kuwae. He said association members receive 500 million yen per year, or about $4.16 million, in lease payments from the Defense Facilities Adminstration Agency for the land that will be returned Monday.

“Of course, we have lots of expectations for redevelopment,” he said. “But at the same time, we will be losing the steady rental income. We won’t know whether or not the return will be beneficial to us until after the land becomes usable.”

Some stumbling blocks to development will have to be overcome, he said, such as the excavation of buried archeological sites. The land is known to include shell mounds from the Jomon Era 7,000 to 10,000 years ago.

To offset any delays to development, Tokyo will continue to pay rent to the landowners for three years following the turnover. And the payments could be extended beyond that time, Shimabukuro said.

“But we don’t know how many years it would take before we could redevelop the land,” he said. “We know what happened to the New Town in Naha.”

The “New Town” area in the prefectural capital remained undeveloped for almost two decades after the U.S. military’s Makiminato Housing Area was returned. Tokyo and the prefecture barred any development while they sought to draft a grand plan to develop the 474 acres as a new city center.

No consideration was given to interim compensation for the landowners, who lost their lease payments, were prevented from developing or even farming their property and still had to pay property taxes while the land remained barren.

However, the area today — covered with shopping malls and apartment complexes — is considered a success story.

The return of part of Camp Lester eventually will open up about a half-mile of the east side of Highway 58 to development, from Kadena Air Base to Lester Middle School and the U.S. Naval Hospital.

A spokesman for the Defense Facilities Administration’s Naha bureau said the rest of Camp Foster will be turned over by March 2008, once the hospital and middle school are relocated to nearby Camp Foster.

The family housing units will be replaced by new apartment towers and duplexes in the old Sada Housing area on Camp Foster, which is now being developed.

“We expect that it will take at least 10 years before the land become usable,” said Osamu Tamanaha, chief of Chatan’s Land Redevelopment Section. The town hopes to develop the area as an office and residential zone, he said.

“The first thing we will do is to build roads, which will help to draw a general outline of a new town,” he said. “But the final decision would rest with each individual landowner on how they utilize their property.”


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