As the Irvine City Council deliberates tonight on a development proposal for the Great Park, it will also be hearing from an informal alliance of military veterans and community groups that wants to make land adjacent to the park home to the county's first veterans cemetery.
If the coalition gets its wish, the cemetery would be located on land that once formed the runways of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. And as part of their pitch, the coalition's leaders are promising that the city would not have to pay anything to build or maintain the cemetery, saying state and private funds would cover those costs.
“This is a win-win situation,” said Dr. Richard Ramirez of Fullerton, a former U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command airman and the unofficial leader of the coalition. “We’re not imposing on the Irvine City Council any demands or future financial support.”
Despite once being home to Army, Navy and Marine bases, Orange County has the distinction of being the state's largest county without a veterans cemetery. The nearby options for members of its 133,000-strong veteran community are limited to the veterans cemetery in Riverside or possibly San Diego. The cemetery in Los Angeles County is full.
Early on, plans for remaking the former El Toro Marine base envisioned a 73-acre general-purpose cemetery. But the idea later was dropped by the developer, resulting in a lawsuit by Forest Lawn, which asserted it had a written agreement and had spent a substantial amount of money working on designs.
To offset any potential developer concerns about real estate values close to a cemetery, the veterans group cites a recent Orange County poll that found most residents have no objection living near a burial ground as long as it is attractively landscaped and well-maintained.
The veterans have proposed the cemetery be located on 125 acres bounded by the proposed golf course on three sides and Irvine Boulevard and part of a planned housing tract on the other.
In an effort to anticipate potential objections, cemetery backers point to the poll of 1,000 county residents conducted in August among English, Spanish and Vietnamese speakers by Adam D. Probolsky of Probolsky Research.
According to the poll, commissioned in connection with a different issue by the Orange County Cemetery District, 80.6 percent said it wouldn’t bother them to live near a cemetery, 16 percent said it would bother them and 3.4 percent weren’t sure. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
A key issue for nearby homeowners, according to the poll, is how well the cemetery is landscaped and maintained, including trees, flowers, grass, hedges, shrubs walls and fences, with an attractive overall park or garden-style design that is kept clean.
Within the past two years, Ramirez, the retired dean of student services at Fullerton College, has become the unofficial “facilitator” for developing the site.
The informal “point man” is Bill Cook of Mission Viejo, a former Marine sergeant who enlisted after high school and flew in 1968 from the air station in El Toro to his assignment in Vietnam. He returned via El Toro at the end of his war, and ironically, the plane’s wheels touched down at almost the exact point that he hopes will be his his final resting place.
Thousands of Marines took similar flights to and from Vietnam during that long war.
“If you’re talking about heritage,” Cook said, “it would be difficult to do more than that. So many of us who were at least Marines departed from El Toro from almost the very spot” where the planes’ wheels left the ground."
Cook, an American Legion lay chaplain, talked to other veterans groups and helped create the plan they hope the City Council will support after it finalizes details for the Great Park.
Separately, another group of veterans is working to create a countywide veterans museum and memorial on part of the World War II-era Army air base that became the Orange County Fairgrounds. The El Toro Marine station was created in 1942 from former Irvine ranch lima bean fields.
Plans for the Cemetery
If it became reality, the Great Park cemetery would be the only state veterans cemetery in Southern California.
As envisioned by the veterans, the general cemetery plan would come together in several steps. First, the Irvine City Council must finalize its vision of the Great Park. Then the veterans group would ask the city to donate the 125 acres next to the park to a nonprofit they are organizing to manage creation of the cemetery.
Once the land is secured, the veterans will be able to ask a member of the local legislative delegation to introduce a bill in Sacramento that would create the burial ground as a California state veterans cemetery. They said they already are assured of support by unnamed Orange County legislators. They didn’t name the lawmakers because, they said, with Irvine support still uncertain, they didn’t want to make state lawmakers uncomfortable.
After land is dedicated, they also can arrange for an architectural design that they said would include bicycle trails and landscaping that are compatible with their surroundings.
Cook said the city of Irvine wouldn't have to pay for maintenance and operations of the Great Park veterans cemetery. Instead, he said, existing state funds set aside for other veteran issues, but never spent, could finance and maintain the cemetery.
“It won’t cost Irvine anything,” he said. “All they need to do is say, ‘Yeah, guys, go ahead.' "