Developer Sends Veterans Cemetery Proposal to Irvine City Council

Runways and hangars at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which is now the site of Irvine's Great Park.

Developer FivePoint Communities has sent the Irvine City Council its general proposal for moving the planned Orange County veterans cemetery from the city’s Great Park to land near the interchange of the 5 and 405 freeways.

“All we’re asking for is an acre-for-acre exchange,” said FivePoint Chief Communications Officer Steve Churm in a phone interview. “We’re not asking for additional entitlements.”

The swap would grant FivePoint the Great Park land, home of the former El Toro Marine Air Station, in exchange for the developer’s acreage adjacent to the freeways. If the swap is approved by the City Council, the proposed cemetery would be moved from the Great Park to the freeway land.

The former El Toro Marine Air Station has strong emotional bonds for many veterans, particularly those from the Vietnam War era who flew from there to combat zones. But the freeway land, at the Bake Parkway exit of the freeway interchange, could be cheaper for taxpayers.

The swap shouldn’t cost Irvine any money, according to the FivePoint proposal summarized in a letter from its Chairman Emile Haddad. Each site contains about 125 acres and no substantial zoning, traffic or environmental issues affect the freeway cemetery land. To read the proposal, click here.

If the cemetery is created on the Great Park site, however, Haddad said in his April 19 letter to Mayor Don Wagner and the City Council, it could cost $30 million to remove existing buildings and other work.

“If the land exchange goes forward, we (FivePoint) would then have that land that has those 70 or so structures,” Churm said. “It would be our responsibility to address that.”

Haddad’s letter also said FivePoint would help fund the first phase of cemetery construction on the freeway site, but didn’t provide specifics.

“We are prepared as a company to help design and construct the first phase of the cemetery,” Churm said, adding there isn’t an estimated cost or any other plans yet.

“We are committed until we see the first phase of the cemetery completed. We feel they (veterans) deserve a place of respect.”

At its April 4 meeting, the council, in a split vote, decided to put $38 million toward the expected $80 million price tag on the Great Park site but also directed city staff to look into the potential land swap with FivePoint.

Councilman Jeff Lalloway and Councilwoman Lynn Schott — both supporters of the Great Park site — voted no.

“This (the freeway plan) is an effort by a developer to get additional homes built within the Great Park,” Lalloway said. “Let’s just say it for what it is — that’s what it is.”

Lalloway did not return calls for comment on last week’s FivePoint proposal.

Churm said in his telephone interview “we’re always considering what the future looks like, but we don’t have any specific plans for that site at this moment.”

Councilwoman Melissa Fox said she was in Sacramento last week meeting with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) and the Governor’s staff.

There is no commitment from Gov. Jerry Brown on seeking about $30 million needed to turn the former Marine Air Station into a veterans cemetery, she said.

Despite her initial reluctance, Fox said she likes FivePoint’s proposal so far.

“My concern was that they would come forward with less than what they were saying,” Fox said in a phone interview. “They certainly have come to the table with a real, bonafide offer. Given my background as a lawyer, I want some time to compare the entitlements in there.”

Councilwoman Christina Shea, who brought up the land swap proposal at the last council meeting, said the freeway location is a “far superior” site and the cemetery would be built faster since the city won’t have to address environmental issues.

Although the projected total cost of creating a cemetery at the Great Park site is $80 million, it could be higher because of building demolitions and unforeseen environmental factors like toxic cleanup, she said. FivePoint’s freeway site currently is being used for agriculture

“That (Great Park cleanup) could be a whole other huge cost,” said Shea but, either way, she said it’s time to move forward with the cemetery.

“Let’s put our politics aside and let’s do what’s right for the community,” Shea said in a phone interview. “I’m hoping that they’re (the Governor and Legislature) going to be looking at both sites.”

Nearly three years ago, Quirk-Silva got the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to buy the site at the former El Toro Marine Air Station for a cemetery. After she lost her seat to former Assemblywoman Young Kim (R-Fullerton), all progress on the cemetery stopped. Quirk-Silva won the seat back in November.

In the meantime, the FivePoint land swap proposal was brought before the City Council last year, but was voted down.

Quirk-Silva did not directly comment last week on the FivePoint proposal and instead sent email statements through her press staffer.

“The men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this nation deserve proper recognition without further delay; and, the taxpayers of Orange County need to know they will not be asked to foot the bill for big land developers. I urge all parties to proceed with these two goals in mind,” Quirk-Silva’s email reads.

“There are pluses and minuses to both the current and newly proposed sites, and I am open to being convinced that the new proposal is a better alternative,” reads the email.

The City Council is expected to determine which site to pursue in June.

Brown and two top Assembly Democratic leaders are expected to visit the Great Park site in early May.

Brown’s office has not responded for comment about whether he would seek the roughly $30 million for the Great Park site.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at spencercustodio@gmail.com.