OC to Get a Veterans Cemetery, But Where?

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

Military veterans will get a cemetery in Orange County, but the Irvine City Council is divided over where to put it.

One side favors a 125-acre site on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station while the other wants to let a developer build it near the intersection of the 5 and 405 freeways.

And still unknown is whether the state will pay the roughly $40 million needed to complete the El Toro site or exactly how the developer who owns the freeway site would create that cemetery.

The two cemetery proposals at Tuesday’s council meeting pitted Councilwoman Christina Shea, who favors the freeway location, against Councilman Jeff Lalloway, who supports the former El Toro base, now known as the Great Park.

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

“I’m not going to die on my sword on this,” said Shea of the debate over where to put the cemetery. “I hope to move forward because I want to see that cemetery built and we know it can be built in the next year and a half.”

Lalloway’s 125-acre plan calls for Irvine to put up $38 million to develop the cemetery on the Great Park site with another roughly $40 million coming from the state legislature and governor.

“The state is basically broke, so what you’re asking people to do is stick with your proposal and that we’re going to wait another how many years before we ever get any money from the State of California,” said Shea, adding Brown has said he supports the cemetery, but there’s no state funding for it.

Shea’s plan proposes a land swap with the development firm FivePoints Communities getting the city’s Great Park cemetery site in exchange for land FivePoints owns near the 405 and 5 interchange. The city council shot down that plan last year and voted to keep the cemetery at the Great Park site. (https://voiceofoc.org/2016/04/feng-shui-doesnt-sway-irvine-council-veterans-cemetery-location-unchanged/)

But this year, Councilwoman Melissa Fox proposed combining the two proposals. The city would put up $38 million toward construction and state funds can be sought for the Great Park site at the same time staff is reviewing how the freeway land could be turned into a cemetery.

Her plan eventually passed on a 3-2 vote, with Councilwoman Lynn Schott voting no and Lalloway loudly dissenting.

For decades, no elected officials tried to get a local cemetery for Orange County veterans. Currently, the closest veteran cemeteries are in Riverside, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

But nearly three years ago, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) got the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to buy the El Toro site 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.

Developer FivePoint Communities has opposed putting the cemetery in the Great Park, near homes and a school.

When the issue was before the city council last year, the room was packed with Chinese residents who opposed locating the cemetery in the Great Park because it would create bad feng shui in the neighborhoods that surround it. Chinese are Irvine’s largest Asian majority, making up about 12 percent of the city’s population.

This year, military veterans crowded the council meeting.

“I am one veteran who did not find welcome when I came home. Now, nearly 50 years later, I’m again made to feel unwelcome by those who say the veterans cemetery proposal is not welcome at the (Great Park) site,” said Jack Fanchar, a U.S. Army draftee in the Vietnam War. “I suspect it violates someone’s marketing plan.”

“I consider these (former military base) acres hallow grounds,” Army veteran Ed Pope told the city council.

“When I’m buried, I really don’t want the freeway close,” said U.S. Air Force veteran Angelo Vassos “What has the developer done for Irvine?”

But other veterans support Shea’s land swap proposal or said they don’t mind where it is. They just want it built quickly.

“Where you place the cemetery will say a lot about your city. It makes a strong statement to the world that you care about veterans if you place it in a prominent … site (near the freeway),” U.S. Army veteran Robert Breton said. “(The freeway) site is a better site and it will, in the end, take less time and less money.”

The next steps are up to Quirk-Silva and FivePoint Communities chairman Emile Haddad.

“I will continue to push the state to do its part on the project,” said Quirk-Silva in a statement published on her web site. 

Haddad has told the city council he’s ready to begin discussing funding for the first phase of the cemetery, but no details have been provided.

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