The Irvine City Council, in a special meeting Tuesday, is likely to move a proposed veterans cemetery from the heart of the old El Toro Marine Base to a developer-owned strawberry field next to the 5 and 405 freeways, according to a letter from Mayor Donald P. Wagner and Councilwoman Melissa Fox.
“It is, of course, within the council’s purview to change its designation of preferred sites,” Wagner and Fox wrote in the letter they sent to the City Manager’s office May 30 asking for the special meeting. “We propose that the council do precisely this at a special meeting.”
Fox, who has been considered the swing vote on the five-member council on the cemetery site, indicated last week she’s leaning toward the land swap with FivePoint Communities, even though she previously campaigned for it to be built on the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in what is now Irvine’s Great Park.
“Even if we got 100 percent of the money … why would I spend $38 million (the city’s share) when we could spend it on a library or museum when the developer wants to do it for free?” Fox said in an interview with Voice of OC.
No appraisals have been done yet on the value of the 125 acres the city would give to FivePoint if the developer used it to build houses or a commercial development. There also is no appraisal for the 125 acres the city would get in return.
The issue of where to put the cemetery has divided veterans at recent council meetings.
Former Marine Bill Cook, who is the chairman of a group called the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, favors the land swap because he said it saves the taxpayers money and construction will begin faster on the strawberry fields.
The foundation, which doesn’t provide information on who it represents and has minor financial resources, according to its IRS filings, helped get the state to grant the Great Park site for a cemetery in 2014.
“Those people (the foundation) are a faction … but we can’t know that they represent the feelings of a majority of the vets here in Orange County in any means,” veteran and Irvine resident Ed Pope said, adding many veterans favor the original El Toro Marine base site near the Great Park.
“That specifically is kind of hallowed ground in that, a lot of American armed forces flew out from there to Vietnam,” Pope said. “That was the last time they ever stood on American soil. A lot of those kids came back in body bags.”
The vote to support the FivePoint site comes as a conservative political action committee is using robocalls to target Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton, who wrote the 2014 legislation creating a veterans cemetery in Irvine.
The robocalls accuse Quirk-Silva of trying to use state tax funds for “her pet project in Irvine” but never mention it is a veterans cemetery that would serve all of southern California.
The robocall campaign, organized by a group called the California Taxpayer Protection Committee, claims Quirk-Silva is taking money out of north Orange County.
“A resting place for California’s veterans is not a ‘pet project,’” Quirk-Silva countered in a press release. “It is a necessary and important project for our veterans in California.”
There also is a similar text message campaign against Quirk-Silva, although it’s unknown who is behind it because there is no disclosure in the messages.
Currently, the closest veterans cemeteries are in Riverside, San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. Orange County has nearly 130,000 veterans, according to the OC Veterans Service Office.
In a separate issue, some information in the Wagner-Fox letter about financing the cemetery appeared to conflict with financial data from Quirk-Silva’s office.
For example, Quirk-Silva’s spokesman, Michael Henning, said the Assemblywoman put $30 million into the pending state budget on May 24 to cover the state’s share of the estimated $77.4 million cost of creating the cemetery. For months, officials have said another $10 million is available through a federal grant. The remaining roughly $37 million would come from Irvine, based on an April 4 split vote by the city council.
But the Wagner-Fox letter doesn’t mention the expected $10 million from the federal government and instead says there’s a $20 million funding shortfall for the Great Park site.
“The state’s offer of $30 million, if matched by the city, would still leave the ARDA (Amended and Restated Development Agreement) site and our deserving veterans almost $20 million short in available funds to actually build and operate the cemetery,” states the letter.
FivePoint Communities offered to swap its strawberry field land with the Great Park site and said it would fund the first phase of cemetery construction on the new site, so long as FivePoint gets its entitlements transferred with the site, including 812,000 square feet of research and development space and nearly 9,000 daily commuter trips allowed in and out of the site.
The developer declined to comment on the story, but it is expected to contribute approximately $9 million to the first phase of cemetery development on the strawberry fields if the land swap passes the council, according to Councilwoman Christina Shea, who echoed Fox’s comments.
“Why would we spend $80 million (city, state and federal funds) on a site….when we could get it basically for nothing,” Shea asked in a phone interview.
Fox said the $77 million price tag to put the cemetery at the Great Park was an estimate from CalVet and she said, as with many construction projects, the cost usually goes up.
“It’s got a lot of junk (buildings, runways that need to be removed)… I’ve been in real estate litigation for 25 years … When you start digging into the ground, you always get more than you bargained for,” Fox said.
Wagner and council members Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott didn’t respond to requests for interviews.
The Wagner-Fox letter and FivePoint’s land swap proposal drew the ire of former Mayor Larry Agran.
“The (Great Park) site, depending on what it’s used for, could be worth up to half a billion dollars,” Agran said, adding that’s the value if it is rezoned for residential development.
He said if the swap goes through and FivePoint gets its entitlements transferred with it, “instantly, they will have a windfall entitlement worth at least a quarter of a billion dollars. That’s why some call it a land swindle.”
Currently the Great Park cemetery site is zoned for park use and a 2014 appraisal valued the 125 acres at $9.4 million.
FivePoint is expected to appraise its strawberry fields and city staff is reappraising the Great Park site, according to Shea. However, the appraisals will not be in before this week’s meeting.
Shea said the positions of Agran and Lalloway on the cemetery location is “just an ego issue in my mind. It’s very unpleasant in how they’re dealing with this. We can’t even focus on debate or discussion. It’s all about let’s find a demon in the room.”
“It’s not a question of bruised egos,” responded Agran. “It’s a question of a project that was unanimously approved by the city council (in 2014). That’s a three-year process. We’ve gone through it. We’re now at the point where we can actually begin construction.”
The special City Council meeting is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Irvine City Hall.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.