OC Veterans Cemetery: Strawberry Fields Forever?

Jeff Antenore/Voice of OC

Governor Jerry Brown talked about supporting a veterans cemetery in Orange County at a Friday press conference in Irvine.

Governor Jerry Brown indicated it could be strawberry fields forever for Orange County veterans at a Friday press conference in Irvine, where he expressed fondness for a cemetery site near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange.

The freeway land, which is sandwiched between car dealerships located off the Northbound I-5 on large fields currently growing strawberries, could be the new home to the veterans’ cemetery if the Irvine City Council accepts a land swap proposal from developer Fivepoint.

Initially in Friday’s press conference, Brown wouldn’t say which site he preferred, instead leaving that to the city council. “Let the locals pick and we’ll back them up. So there it is.”

However, later in the press conference Brown indicated a fondness for the Fivepoint-owned freeway site.

“Obviously, I like (the) strawberry patch — ‘Strawberry Fields.’ Remember that song?” Brown told reporters.

Earlier this year, Irvine City Councilwoman Christina Shea introduced the idea of a land swap, with support from the developer, essentially trading a 125-acre site in the Great Park residential tract, already endorsed by the city council and the state legislature as a veterans’ cemetery, for the freeway property.

Council members back in 2014 authorized a 125-acre parcel in the Great Park residential tract and it was later also endorsed by state legislation sponsored by then Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva (D-Fullerton).

That project seemed stalled until Irvine City Councilman Jeff Lalloway spearheaded a move to provide nearly $40 million toward final funding for the Great Park site – at the same meeting as Shea’s proposal was unveiled.

During a contentious and lengthy public hearing, veterans’ testimony seemed split between the freeway land and the Great Park site.

Yet at Friday’s press conference, virtually all veterans speaking to reporters supported the freeway site.

Officials, like Brown and Quirk Silva, say the debate has ultimately helped move the concept.

“Now that we have two (sites), it’s absolutely certain that Orange County will get the veterans’ cemetery that it deserves and the veterans deserve,” Brown said.

Brown wouldn’t say whether the state would commit nearly $40 million to the original site if the Irvine City Council chose to stick with it.

“Obviously, one always has to be careful with the spending of money. What do you get, what don’t you get. It will be looked at. But mostly the Irvine City Council has to make a decision and we can talk about it.”

Reached later for comment, Lalloway dismissed Brown’s Strawberry Fields comment and reiterated that during a private tour of both sites, Brown indicated he would support whatever deal locals struck.

“He believes in local control,” Lalloway said.

Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner said the city council should settle on a site by the end of June.

“At that point, we’re’ going to make — I’m hoping — a final decision,” Wagner said at the press conference.

Brown also reacted to questions about his sister’s ties to the developer.

Kathleen Brown, a former California Treasurer and current partner in the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm, also sits on the board of directors of developer FivePoint.

It’s unknown whether she has played any role in deciding which site becomes the cemetery.

“I didn’t even know that — you’re telling me. My sister has a lot of working years ahead of her, so (Kathleen) doesn’t come to me for advice,” Brown said. “What’s the difference? They’re (FivePoint) part of this deal. Now, would you like me to get FivePoint out and then have nothing? So, I think it’s fine.”

FivePoint, in a land swap proposal presented publicly two weeks ago, said that they would help fund the first phase of construction of the cemetery on the freeway site.

If the Great Park site is selected, it could get an additional $10 million in federal funds but still would need about $30 million from the state.

Quirk-Silva, who secured the site through the state Legislature in 2014 during her first term in office, said she too found merit in the strawberry field site after touring the two different locations with Brown and other officials, including two FivePoint representatives.

“I … have been supporting the original site, but coming to see the new site, it’s definitely impressive. As the governor said, we’re going to be concerned with the cost,” Quirk-Silva said after the press conference.

Quirk Silva also said she wants to get more specifics on the FivePoint commitment regarding Phase one construction for a veterans’ cemetery.

Brown credited Quirk Silva for securing the original state legislation that enabled the veterans’ cemetery and said it was her influence that guided his interest and ultimately brought him to review the two sites.

Any change to the original site designation would likely require further legislative approvals as well as authorization from Brown.

Robert Brower, an American Legion finance officer and legislative commissioner, said  he and other veterans behind the push for the cemetery didn’t know the original Great Park site was going to cost $77 million to build out the first phase.

“We didn’t know until June of 2016, how much the cemetery was going to cost,” Brower said in an interview. “Almost half of that ($77 million) is demolition and cleanup of the old site.”

Quirk-Silva also expressed concern about the clean up of the original site.

“They did tell us that there are buried containers left from past usage … from the airfields,” said Quirk-Silva. “There are also several buildings that would have to be removed and a huge amount of concrete.”

Peter Katz, an Army veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, said he also prefers the freeway site saying, “it’s cheaper for the state.”

Anaheim business leader Brian Chuchua, who also serves on the veterans’ foundation backing the Strawberry fields site, said the original site has too many cleanup and wildlife preservation issues.

“It’s going to take years to mitigate all of that,” Katz said.

According to a letter from FivePoint 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 FivePoint proposal, click here.

FivePoint’s plan includes an offer to finance the first phase of the freeway site cemetery construction.

“The point is, we were given options on a cemetery location that was going to cost $77 million to build phase one. If I could get phase one built elsewhere, for less cost … I’m not concerned about what the developer may make,” Brower said.

The value of each site is unknown at this time and the Voice of OC is awaiting a public records request for the appraisals.

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.

“This has evolved over the three years, but I think it’s very positive that we have two very distinct sites. Both have pros and cons,” Quirk-Silva said.