It’s unclear when the first funeral procession can enter Orange County’s state veterans cemetery, but a split Irvine City Council has begun a land swap that will move the site from a central part of the former El Toro Marine base to strawberry fields near the interchange of the 5 and 405 freeways.
“This may be a good site, I have no idea … I have 10 pages (of information), no traffic study, no appraisal,” Councilman Jeff Lalloway said in opposing the site switch at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “This is absolutely ludicrous … I’m concerned there’s been a backroom deal.”
Councilwoman Christina Shea countered Lalloway’s claims and defended the pending land swap.
“That dramatic misrepresentation of what’s going on here is pretty sad, but that’s what we deal with regularly on the dais,” Shea said. “We need to move it forward and then it’s going to move through all the proper processes.”
There is no estimate for when the veterans cemetery would open. Strong feelings on both sides, sparked in part by an anonymous attack aimed at backers of the main former El Toro base site, intensified the council debate.
But following the City Council’s decision, FivePoint Chairman and CEO Emile Haddad said in a statement “the Irvine Council’s decision is a win-win-win for the city-at-large, or communities and, most importantly, the veterans who deserve a special place to honor their own, a cemetery that is worthy of the service they have given this country.”
“FivePoint stands ready to help the city and state expedite the building of the cemetery,” he added. “We are excited and proud to help deliver the promise made to the veterans.”
Shea originally bought the land swap proposal to the council last year, but it failed to gain traction. She said Tuesday night that more than a year ago she approached FivePoint Communities and an organization named the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation to begin talking about a potential land trade.
Since then, FivePoint offered to swap its strawberry field land for the original site by the Great Park, which has hangars and a runway on it. FivePoint said it would fund the first phase of cemetery construction on the new site. In return, the developer wants its current entitlements transferred to the 125-acre runway site. Those entitlements include 812,000 square feet of commercial/office space and nearly 9,000 daily commuter trips allowed in and out of the site.
The developer will also contribute at least $10 million to the strawberry field site to fund phase one of the cemetery construction, according to a transaction outline it sent to the city.
Mayor Donald Wagner, Shea and Councilwoman Melissa Fox voted for the swap while Lalloway and Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott opposed it.
Supporters said moving the site would expedite cemetery construction and be cheaper than if it stayed at the main part of the former military base because buildings and runways wouldn’t have to be demolished, along with dealing with potential toxic clean up.
“This should be something that we all are excited about,” Shea said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
“I want to build this cemetery as fast as possible so those alive today will have peace of mind on where they will be interred,” Fox said. “This is not a last-minute motion. What we’re trying to do is get this done in a timely fashion for this year’s budget and not put it off once again.”
But Lalloway, Schott and supporters of the runway site condemned the swap and said it will take longer to open the cemetery because the city is going to have to go back through the state approval process, like it did with the runway site. They also said there wasn’t enough information about the proposed swap available at Tuesday’s meeting.
“We’re just going to shove this down people’s throats without proper analysis, without proper study. Why don’t we just rip up our master plan?” said Lalloway, who then ripped up meeting documents.
Currently the runway site adjacent to the Great Park is zoned for park use and a 2014 appraisal valued the 125 acres at $9.4 million or $81,000 an acre. It was projected to handle about 200,000 veterans graves, most of them tombs for cremains.
Currently, the only veterans cemeteries in the region are in Riverside, San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. Orange County has nearly 130,000 veterans, according to the OC Veterans Service Office.
Former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran previously said the runway site could be worth up to half a billion dollars if it were zoned for housing.
However, the developer’s lobbyist said the strawberry fields have a higher value than the runway site.
“There was no requirement to submit … an appraisal as part of our term sheet,” said Patrick Strader, FivePoint’s lobbyist, adding that land surrounding the strawberry fields sold at nearly $4 million an acre.
“We can and will provide an appraisal if required. But the concept that a $9 million in total site is worth similar to the other site is preposterous,” Strader said during public comment.
The runway site has the newly built Portola High School across the street and is adjacent to scores of new homes, as well as the Great Park.
“It doesn’t take much to understand the land in the north (the runway site) is very valuable for building houses. Lots of houses,” Schott said during her opening remarks. “That’ll be the next step.”
“What is the scope of the first phase? Is it a fence and a monument sign?” Schott asked during council deliberations. “What does that $10 million provide for us? These questions have yet to be answered. We owe it to the general public to get the answers to these questions.”
Lalloway said the runway site is shovel ready and the strawberry fields would restart the process.
“There has to be a bill (in the Legislature). There has to be this procedure of a swap…we have to do some due diligence, I imagine, at some level,” Lalloway said.
Development of the runway site will cost nearly $80 million, according to a California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) report.
The site would have more than $30 million in demolition costs and require at least another $30 million to construct the first phase of the cemetery, which would have accommodated the remains of approximately 5,000 veterans, according to the report. Subsequent phases would have added more graves and cremation tombs over time until they reached a buildout of more than 200,000.
However, since there is no CalVet report on the strawberry fields, it is unknown how much the first phase there will cost or how many remains it will accomodate.
Meanwhile, Wagner said he isn’t concerned about FivePoints’ profit. He said that land values are different based on what it’s zoned for.
“Fivepoints is going to make some money off this. Yep, probably. I wouldn’t expect them to be doing it otherwise. So what?” Wagner said. “We like them to come here and invest in our community, put people to work and make money. That improves the community.”
Wagner said he couldn’t justify spending millions of dollars of city money on the runway site when the cost at the runway site was an estimate.
“It is unconscionable to spend millions and millions … when we’ve already dumped $200 million into the Great Park,” Wagner said.
But Schott said her support of the runway site next to the Great Park made her the target of an anonymous website created specifically to attack her. The website claims Schott went door-to-door over the weekend to convince residents to stick to the runway site. The website, which has no names anywhere on it, doesn’t say if its from a political action committee or run by an individual.
“(It’s) an outright lie, specifically about my whereabouts over this last weekend. I wasn’t even in the state of California,” Schott said.
“The issue here is not about attacking each other’s characters, but it’s turned into that,” Schott said. “It’s turned into robocalls. It’s turned into fake websites about whereabouts and activities to try to sway public opinion.”
Bill Cook, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current president of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation told the City Council he supports the move to the strawberry fields, where he feels it will get finished more quickly and for less cost.
“We asked specifically that you put aside your politics … and vote unanimously, if you would, for the monument that’s going to bring glory to the hallowed ground to honor our veterans,” Cook told the council after reminding them that Tuesday marked the 99th anniversary of the Marines assault on Belleau Woods during World War I and the 73rd anniversary of D-Day in Europe during World War II.
“Today in history, you have a very unique and rare opportunity to create hallowed ground,” Cook said.
On the opposite side, Vietnam veteran Dennis Phelps asked the City Council “if you don’t show some honor to the people who put their lives on the line to keep this place free … then what good are we? We’re just a bunch of minions running around. A bunch of people enslaved to an economic situation where a corporation wants to trade a piece of land.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at [email protected]