Irvine City Council Set to Move Vets Cemetery to Strawberry Field

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

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 spencercustodio@gmail.com.

  • Greg Diamond

    I hate to say it, Spencer, but this is a pretty slanted and shoddy story.

    (1) Fox campaigned for it to have been on the ARDA site (the originally approved one) because at the time that was the best site offered. Had this site been introduced as a prospect at the time, it is likely that it would have been chosen.

    (2) As Fox has pointed out on her website, sales prices of adjoining properties suggests that the lots are probably of comparable value — particularly in light of the need for a huge toxic waste Superfund cleanup on a corner of the ARDA site. But the basic difference between them is this: the ARDA site is well suited for residential or (preferably) commercial development — or, even more preferably, for gardens and such that would increase the quality of living for those living nearby — while the Strawberry site is extremely well suited for what is likely to become the largest tourist attraction in Irvine and the very symbol of the city. (Lots of places have tall buildings and universities. Few have veterans memorials and cemeteries at the juncture of one of the most iconic freeway interchanges in California.) Each lot should be able to be devoted to its own best use.

    (3) The OCVMP foundation is clear about “who it represents”: veterans and others — in my case, families of veterans, as my daughter is now deployed with the Navy — who are interested in a OC veterans’ cemetery. It “represents” no interest beyond that. None of them seem to know Ed Pope, a veterans who — to be charitable — seems to have entered this movement belatedly. Why does HE get this sort of press? Is this a take on the old Army slogan: “a faction of one”?

    (4) The conservative PAC attacking Sharon Quirk-Silva is likely simply focused on trying to defeat her in AD-65. FivePoint would be stupid to attack this figure and leader who is extremely popular with the veterans and who is pointedly neutral on the question of site selection, content to follow the wishes of Irvine’s City Council.

    (5) Perhaps the reason that the Wagner-Fox letter doesn’t mention the $10 million from the federal government is that, should the ARDA site remain the chosen one, it really IS no sure thing. It becomes the choke point that FivePoint could still use, given its motivation, to shut off any hope of a Veterans Cemetery entirely. Anyone who thinks that they’d simply fold, rather than try to convince the mercurial Trump Administration to move their way, is dreaming.

    (6) Fox disputes the assertion that the entitlements will move with the swap. The article should have sought her out for comment on that point. That also, of course, speaks to Agran’s expressed concerns. Hopefully that will be clarified tonight.

    (7) As Agran surely understands, the Council has as much right to change the law now — now that a superior option has arisen — as it had to pass the original measure in 2014. I hope that he will recognize that the prominent placement of this memorial — rather than his desire to prevent FivePoint from profiting more than it otherwise might — will be the lasting reminder to history of his drive to stop the move of the airport to this very site and of his vision in getting a veterans cemetery to restore some of the originally planned greatness of the Great Park.

    (And yes, it will be within the Great Park. Just as Irvine changed its own boundaries when it incorporated the base, so can it now change the boundaries of the Great Park to incorporate this lot of land, which it will now own.)

  • astar2b

    Will they have enough space in 10 years? 20 ?

    • Greg Diamond

      It’s intended for cremains. Takes up far less space.

  • J Money 74

    Seems like you only look out for your best interest. This new plan is a win for all but obviously you don’t care for others.

    • Karen Jaffe

      It’s not a win for all. It’s a lose for the citizens (traffic) and potentially for the vets if the developer doesn’t commit the $45m required for phase 1 if the swap is made. If they don’t commit and Council still swaps, then the citizens will be out tax dollars if the cemetery is built because the state and VA funds are low on likelihood, and the $38m is from redevelopment that Councilwoman Fox wants to use for the GP as was earmarked. Until we have more facts, this whole process should be put on hold. Making decisions under pressure never ends well.

      • J Money 74

        1) less traffic since it’s near a fwy instead of a residential area and high school!
        2) If If if.. i don’t hear anyone saying if the original site will cost more to demo which it will! The 38M just goes back into the GP fund which will be used to build something like a library or museum.
        3) Seems like the original site was put under heavy pressure without even looking out for residents in the area who don’t want it in their neighborhood. The only counter to that is that “we are vets and you should do what we want because you never served!”

        • Karen Jaffe

          Maybe I wasn’t clear. If the swap is done, then there will be 9000 more cars right on top of the great park and yes, that will cause a bunch more traffic through the streets of Irvine.

          Not disputing that there is demo on the original site. My question is that if the Strawberry site is free to the taxpayers, where is the developer commitment for the $45m that it costs for Phase 1? No one that I know has this.

          I’m not anti vet nor am I anti-cemetery. I’m just wanting a reasoned, decision with all the facts and data and not a rush based on the fictitious timelines that have all of a sudden been imposed because ultimately a poor decision will come back to haunt the residents and potentially the vets. Politicians come and go so they don’t much care.

          • J Money 74

            Here is a key fact that this site nor QS seems to want to address.. The City clearly stated that it will give $38M if the state will match.. but it didn’t.. so now the cemetery is short of money from the get go. Also, not talking trash, but where do you get 9000 cars from? That area won’t add that many cars for that space.

          • Karen Jaffe

            So the entitlements that are listed for the Strawberry fields and also referenced in the Hadad letter to Wagner are for 8461 ADT (average daily (car) trips) and 800,000 commercial. What they are asking for is to keep those entitlements and include them in the trade for the ARDA site. They know that it will be difficult to build to the density at the strawberries in order to take advantage (read flood with cars) of the 8461 ADT so they want to start building homes on the ARDA site because a) they don’t have any Caltrans restrictions and b) the city doesn’t monitor ADT at all, hence the horrendous traffic.

            As for the $38m, this money is earmarked for the ARDA site use. It can likely be changed to strawberries but Fox has said that she wants to keep this redevelopment money for the GP which is what it was earmarked for. So if the swap is done, then the private developer needs to foot the bill for Phase 1 which is $45.6m and for which we have not seen a commitment. So if the state money doesn’t come through and the VA money doesn’t come through, then the vets are SOL unless we see a 5 point commitment.

    • LFOldTimer

      Nice dodge.

      You failed to respond to the crux of my comment:

      THAT THE IRVINE POLS LIED TO AND BROKE THEIR PROMISE TO THE VETS.

      You can’t deny that with a straight face.

      • J Money 74

        Things change all the time. Amendments to popular thinking. Oc and Irvine will get it’s vet cemetery. You are just getting sensitive

        • LFOldTimer

          “Things change all the time.

          People lie and break promises all the time too. Dishonorable people.

          This time the leaders of Irvine lied to the ones who put their lives at risk to keep everyone else safe and free.

          Some will acknowledge that fact. Others wont’. We know where you stand.

        • J Money are you a veteran? or are you just another troll PR spokesperson for Lennar Corp? Not one veteran was involved in this decision.

  • Excuse my ignorance, what does this paragraph mean?
    “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.”
    Five Point entitlements, R&D site & 9,000 commuter trips?
    After reading their background info on the city website, I see not one of the council members served in any branch of the US Military. Nope the majority of them were fat cat attorneys that never served. So how can we expect them to give a FF about veterans. In 2016 the city council voted to keep the cemetary at the great park, I am curious how many palms were greased to get them to change their minds?
    And of course they set the vote for a last minute unscheduled meeting.
    I served from 1970 thru 1978, If one of these individuals was to say the typical republican catch phrase, “Thank you for your service” I would show them 3 fingers and invite them to read between the lines.

    • LFOldTimer

      You bet, Dweeze. It’s highly unlikely that even one of them ever wore a military uniform or heard a shot fired. Now they’re armchair generals. ha. It make me wonder how many of them spat on soldiers, sailors and Marines returning from SE Asia during the Vietnam war? They all worship their developer sugar daddies. They follow BIG MONEY around like the Pied Piper? Vets??? Let them eat cake!!!

      Really shameful.

      The vets were PROMISED a cemetery at the Great Park. Now they’re BACK PEDALING on their PROMISE!!!

      They have NO HONOR!!!

  • Jack Milliken

    Why not include a basic map of possible locations? Are there no more editors left in this world?

    • Jack, I asked the same question on the last article on this subject, I saw links to 2 architectural drawings obviously produced by the developer showing the ET Base as a no frills desert type site, and the strawberry field as a nicely landscaped area right next to the North Boundary of the I5/405 interchange which I also noticed is right next to the Irvine auto center. I forsee the auto center using the facility as excess vehicle storage.

  • astar2b

    Developer is not doing this for free…

    • J Money 74

      No but it’s a win win. Developer gets to build more homes and make more money.. while new location allows the vets to builder a cemetery without the demolition costs and exhausting tax money. Not sure why this doesn’t make any sense for those who oppose the swap.

      • Karen Jaffe

        Because more homes = more traffic which kills the currently disastrous traffic situation so it’s not a win for the residents. If the Strawberry site is truly meant to be tax free, then where is their commitment of the $45m to build phase 1? Councilwoman Fox wants to use the redevelopment funds of $38m for park items which is great. The rumor is that the state money will be line item vetoed on the 15th and the VA grant is at 74 out of 101 on the priority list, so I just don’t understand how and where the $$ is coming from for the Strawberries and would love for someone to tell me.

        • J Money 74

          The residents would choose traffic over cemetery view any day of the week.

          • Karen Jaffe

            No, I don’t think so. I for one wouldn’t mind the cemetery view so long as there isn’t the traffic or at least they study the impact as was promised.

        • Karen, I believe Money is a troll PR spokesperson for Lennar.
          I made a lengthy comment to your Opinion Blog that I wished to show Congressman Correa. I now see it is no longer listed and a VOC search would not locate it. could you post the link?

  • justanon

    I’m not as concerned so much about the location as the paltry amount of land to be dedicated to a Veteran’s cemetery.

    The Riverside National Veteran’s Cemetery is almost a 1,000 acres and while not in the most beautiful of locations it has at least accommodated a large number of Vets and their families.

    I just wonder how quickly such a small parcel of land will be filled and how many Vets it will accommodate?

    • Greg Diamond

      It is intended for cremains.

  • Paul Lucas

    The cemetery should be on the base!

    • J Money 74

      They are both in the boundaries of el toro marine base.

      • Are you familiar at all where the strawberry field is located or are you just blowing smoke? it is about 5 miles from the location marked for the cemetery.

  • LFOldTimer

    What a major insult to all veterans. Shoving the deceased vets into the strawberry fields so that the developers can maximize their profits on their Great Park home construction projects and so the rich foreign national property buyers won’t have their culture offended by living in the vicinity of a veteran’s cemetery. Disgusting. Money and political correctness supersedes honor for our vets who should receive first class treatment by having their resting place inside the Great Park.

    What has happened to our country when those who hold leadership positions in city government willfully disrespect the vets who risked their lives to keep our country safe and free?

    Chances are not one of the Irvine council members served a day in the US military. So I expect a majority vote on Tuesday to shove the vets to the back of the bus.

    And IMO any vet who goes along with this scam is a traitor to interests of all the veterans who have earned the utmost respect of our nation by enlisting in or voluntarily entering the armed forces to defend the safety of all Americans.

    And please, all you phony politicians, stop with the “Thank you for your service” nonsense. The pseudo fake words get old after awhile.

    • J Money 74

      disgrace to vets.. putting them into a strawberry field instead of land that needs toxic cleanup.

      • LFOldTimer

        If the land is clean enough to build homes on with living people – it’s certainly clean enough to house a cemetery.

        The toxicity card is a pretty lame excuse.

        • J Money 74

          Because the developer will spend way more money to clean up the land and build homes on it.. rather than using tax payer dollars.

          Not an excuse, just flopping on your statement about disgrace. “Shoving the deceased vets into the strawberry fields” doesn’t make any sense. Sounds pretty nice opposed to a site that needs cleanup.

          • LFOldTimer

            The developer is not going to do any toxic cleanup. That’s the government’s obligation. The vets were PROMISED a cemetery in the Great Park. Now they’re reneging on their PROMISE. It shows TREMENDOUS disrespect to the vets to shove them out onto the back nine in the strawberry fields. Like they’re second class citizens. The money-hungry developers and filthy rich foreign nationals who pay cash for their homes come first!!! And the politicians do whatever their sugar daddy developers tell them to do. Jump??? HOW HIGH????

            This is a tremendous insult to veterans (myself included) who joined the military to keep our nation safe and free, many of whom put their own lives at risk to do so. Absolutely disgraceful.

          • J Money 74

            except for the Vets that want the land swap.. looks like you are in the minority.. a big minority. Also what do you expect, for everyone to bend over for vets even if the deal doesn’t make any sense? Talk about entitlement.

          • LFOldTimer

            They lied to the vets and broke their promise. About as dirty as it gets.

            So some politically vetted vets who rub elbows with the dirty pols want the land swap so that’s representative of ALL vets??? lol. Your logic is flawed.

            Some vets are bureaucrats – no better than the pols.

            Bottom line: This is all about making the developers happy while hosing the vets. A 10 year old could figure it out.

            If you want the REAL INSIDE story you should go read the VOC opinion blog by Jaffe and Martinez on the vet cemetery posted earlier today.

            That should set you straight.

          • J Money 74

            Another liberal piece. Lol. Maybe just go out and talk to vets. You think your opinion is for all vets.

          • LFOldTimer

            Vets, like all humans, expect to receive what we were promised – not disrespected by having our cemetery moved so the developers can reap greater rewards.

            Regardless whether or not you want to admit it – the developers and the foreign nationals are given priority by the City of Irvine over the vets who risked their lives in service to our county.

            And you’re as bad as they are.

            No wonder your board name has the word “money” in it. Makes perfect sense.

          • Karen Jaffe

            Actually, if you read the piece, it say nothing about an opinion about the vets. It’s a representation for the citizens of Irvine who are ignored throughout this process. I would appreciate any comments AFTER you actually read the piece and understand what it is trying to say. City Council has promised a traffic commission to ensure that traffic and congestion is kept in check instead of simply bending over for the developers. Here, they had a perfect opportunity as a part of the swap to change these entitlements to ensure just that. To limit the traffic and the ADTs but again, the citizen lost. Not only that, but since we don’t have any deal sheet that is public, we don’t know where the money is going to come from to fund this cemetery. All we know is that it’s free to tax payers. Five point has committed $10m which will get us a plowed field and a monument. Look at the costs at the back of the OWEN report, back out the $30m in demolition and you come up with 45.6m. Where is this coming from? Mark my words, they will redraw the park lines to include the fields and then use the redevelopment funds that were meant for the Great Park and yes, taxpayers will end up paying.

            J Money – please take the time to read before spewing.

          • I read Congressman Lou Corea’s post congratulating veterans for their newly won fight for a “cemetery at the strawberry fields on the El Toro marine base”. I was looking for the VOC opinion blog by Jaffe and Martinez on the vet cemetery posted earlier today. It is no longer on the page… and a search would not locate it.

          • LFOldTimer

            Dweeze – click on “opinion” at the top of the VOC home page.

            You will find the Jaffe and Martinez blog the third one down on the opinion page.

          • Thanks, I discovered the link after I posted, and posted it on Lou Correa MC Facebook page. I also learned that the “alternate site” has been designated part of the Great Park, but it was never part of MCAS El Toro.

          • Karen Jaffe

            Unless something has changed recently (since June 6), the new site has not yet been designated as a part of the Great Park. Whether or not it’s a part of the Great park is, in my opinion, a red herring. The Vets deserve a cemetery. 3 years ago the City Council made a decision to build on the ARDA site with no timelines and no costs. Last week, they effectively did the same thing.

          • Karen Jaffe
        • Karen Jaffe

          So if both sites were on MCAS el toro, then won’t there be a similar level of toxicity on the strawberry fields as well? The CalVet study will start, oh maybe by the end of the summer so maybe by this time next year, we will know. Then the EIR and the change in the AB1453 so maybe in a couple of years….

      • it is not a disgrace to be in a strawberry field it is a DISGRACE TO BE PLANTED IN A STRAWBERRY FIELD RIGHT NEXT TO A NOISY MAJOR HIGHWAY. I doubt a 21 gun salute by an honor guard could be heard over the freeway traffic. Coincidently freeways periodically need to be widened, which will mean moving resting places. Also you never mention the hazmat cleanup of the fertilizers & insecticides used on the strawberry fields.

  • RyanCantor

    “It’s not a question of bruised egos,” responded Agran.

    RIIIIIIIGHT.

    And blowing through that $200,000,000 had nothing to do with ego, either.