Emile Haddad, CEO of developer FivePoint Holdings, said Thursday Irvine City Manager Sean Joyce only wants to give the state 25 of the 125 acres designated for a veterans cemetery, while the rest of the land temporarily could have a hotel or houses built on it.
Haddad said if the city goes for the partial transfer and expresses a desire to build on the rest of the land, FivePoint will withdraw from negotiations to swap land it owns for city property originally designated for the cemetery.
“We have zero interest entertaining this idea. More importantly, now I know what they’re thinking …. I want to make sure this land is restricted for the cemetery … without that, we’re not moving forward.”
Veterans and some city council members also opposed the rumored use of the land for commercial purposes.
“What the heck? If you guys put a hotel on there, you know what that tells the vets? It tells them to F off,” said Bill Cook, a former Marine and chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.
In June the city voted to swap land from the former El Toro Marine Corp Air Station for a site owned by FivePoint off the 5 and 405 freeway interchange. The swap site now is used to grow strawberries and was once inside the edge of the base. Veterans have sought a cemetery in Orange County for years. Currently, the closest veterans cemeteries are in Riverside and San Diego Counties.
As part of the land swap agreement, 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.
After the swap, Irvine is supposed to transfer the 125 acres to the state while the California Department of Veterans Affairs oversees the cemetery construction.
“When we proposed the transfer of the exchange, the city manager’s comments to me was, ‘Well, you made us lose a lot of money,’” Haddad said. “Wait a minute, what do you mean I made you lose a lot of money? You put it up for a cemetery.”
Orange County’s first veterans cemetery is planned to be built in stages and questions have recently surfaced about what’s going to happen to the rest of the land until it’s finished.
The Irvine City Council is rumored to have scheduled a closed session discussion of the veterans cemetery during its Sept. 26 meeting. The discussion reportedly will include using 100 acres of the veterans cemetery land for hotels, homes or other commercial purposes until the land is needed to bury veterans.
“At first, I was like, is this a joke? Then I was, no no no…. this was meant to give the veterans a cemetery that was viable and ready to go,” Haddad said in a phone interview. “It’s not right and it’s unfair to use the veterans. I don’t think there was ever an intent to give the veterans the cemetery.”
Cook said he and other vets are always ready for surprises, like the rumored use of cemetery land for commercial buildings.
“For people who have walked in the bush, we expect an ambush,” Cook said, referring to patrols in the Vietnam War. “We know how to strike back.”
“Well some genius in the city decided that we don’t want to do that (transfer all 125 acres to the State). They want some interim years on some of this land while the cemetery’s being developed,” Cook said in a Thursday phone interview.
“They’re (the city) being rained on, full-scale, because I threw a bomb out there … I got people calling me all day long .. they are spitting, cussing, livid, mad about this,” said Cook.
Like Cook, Councilwoman Christina Shea is against the rumored move.
“Then the city would use the 100 acres remaining for our own use … basically creating a cash cow for the city … but again that has never been on the table, we’ve never discussed it — it’s never been on any public record,” Shea said in a Thursday phone interview.
“It’s really underhanded. It’s very bad public policy and it’s just a breach of our agreements,” Shea said. “It’s not the way our city government should be running.”
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who spearheaded a bill to secure the cemetery in the legislature, said it could be yet another snag in the development of the cemetery and said she saw Mayor Donald Wagner last week who said progress on the cemetery was going smoothly.
“Integrity is an important part of being a leader … I’m hoping this council will keep their word,” Quirk-Silva said in a Thursday phone interview. “You can’t put a price on a Veteran’s cemetery.”
However, Councilman Jeff Lalloway said the rumblings aren’t true.
“The rumors that are being spread that there is the potential for transferring anything less than 125 acres for a cemetery are disgusting, distortions of reality. The city has committed … to transfer 125 acres to the veterans cemetery. We have made that commitment repeatedly. We will follow through on our promises,” Lalloway said in a Thursday night phone interview.
Lalloway is still in favor of keeping the original El Toro site and said none of these problems would have arisen if the city didn’t opt for a land swap.
“Again, I said this transaction was a mistake and am still in favor of keeping it at the original site. We had the money, we had the approvals and we would be in construction right now.”
In the June vote to move the cemetery from the main base to the freeway, Wagner, Shea and Councilwoman Melissa Fox voted for the swap while Lalloway and Councilwoman Lynn Schott opposed it.
According to city staff Thursday afternoon, Joyce was out of the office. Craig Reem, the city spokesman, was also out of the office. Neither of them returned calls.
Meanwhile, Fox said she’s been getting calls for the past two days from local businesses who say a move like this makes them apprehensive doing business with Irvine.
Fox, along with Shea, is opposed to the move and said the discussion shouldn’t be held in closed session.
“If it is anything other than how much dollar amount … I’ll walk out. That needs to be a transparent discussion. I’m not going to participate in a backroom deal,” Fox said. “If you see me on the dais during closed session, you’ll know what happened.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.