Santana: OC Vets Cemetery in Irvine Stuck?

The effort to site a federal veterans cemetery in Irvine may have hit a snag.

And veteran leaders are livid.

Earlier this year, veterans agreed to swap a 125-acre parcel already dedicated as a veterans cemetery by the Irvine City Council, for a similar-sized lot near the 405 freeway, currently used as strawberry fields.

Or so they thought.

This week, as preparations began for next Tuesday’s Irvine City Council meeting to finalize the transaction, city staff apparently started communicating some heartburn over the details of the deal — which involves developer Five Points, 125 acres of land they own and $10 million to help fund the first phase of development for a veterans cemetery, which will utilize 25 acres.

So what happens to the other 100 acres over the next century while the cemetery is built out?

That, it seems, hasn’t been thought out.

Yet the answers could blow up the whole deal.

Now, as is usual in government circles, some city officials want to have this entire discussion next Tuesday behind closed doors.

That would be wrong.

First off, I’m pretty sure it’s illegal.

California’s open meetings laws only allow closed session discussion of public sector real estate deals when the discussion involves price and terms of the transaction.

That’s already been decided.

What’s up for debate now, it seems, is what happens to the rest of the idle public land as the veterans’ cemetery gets built out.

That’s a legitimate policy question council members should indeed explore and answer…in public.

I’ve heard many different takes on the issue – which doesn’t seem as resolved as many thought.

There also apparently are significant challenges with the negotiations involving Five Points and city officials as well as issues regarding how the $10 million will be paid out.

Irvine has legitimate reasons to be cautious about how the land is transferred.

Note that the city is in the middle of a legal dispute with the County of Orange on a nearby 100-acre parcel – with county officials playing with all sorts of different uses – including a civic center, a water park, a homeless shelter and housing – for the land tract.

So it doesn’t seem crazy to ask what happens to this 125-acre parcel.

The big question is what can the city leaders do to make sure the land is used for a cemetery and nothing else?

Can they place deed restrictions on the property or zone it as institutional open space?

Some elected officials apparently already have been told there may be alternatives for idle portions of the land.

“I have heard that there have been thoughts of putting this matter (or portions of it) on our closed session agenda so that various alternatives might be discussed – alternatives that include the City retaining control of most of the property, and only turning a portion of the land over to the State for a veterans cemetery. Possibly even using a portion of the property for the city to develop hotels, and possibly housing,” wrote Councilwoman Christina Shea in a Wednesday email to City Manager Sean Joyce, obtained through the state’s Public Records Act.

Shea voiced opposition to dealing with the issue in closed session, arguing in her email to Joyce, that “this Council has made promises to both our residents and the veterans of Orange County. Therefore, I strongly urge you to place this matter on our public agenda, if it is ready for review, including these suggested options, so that everyone might understand what is being considered, and the ramifications of these options to our Veterans community.”

Reports that local developers like the Irvine Company and Five Points are trying to attract Amazon to site its headquarters in Irvine also has veteran leaders speculating publicly whether there are plans to switch land parcels on them once again for another commercial interest.

Veterans leader Bill Cook, who headed up efforts to find the original land for the veterans’ cemetery and then supported the 125-acre land swap, said the last minute questions from staff seemed like “a complete betrayal of the veterans.”

“They agree to convey 125 acres,” Cook said, “then they get down to the end game, and they change it to 25 acres. What that tells us is OK, we have to go back now, every few years and do a new battle for the whole cemetery, again and again.

I’m 71 years old for Pete’s sake, how much longer am I going to be able to do this?”

Cook sees the WWII and Korea veterans slowly disappearing.

And as a Vietnam vet, the former Marine knows his generation isn’t far behind.

“It’s getting to that time…and they want to jack us around into the future?”

City Councilman Jeff Lalloway said veterans’ groups are getting played.

“City staff is still negotiating this agreement. So to suggest there’s a final resolution to any issue is premature. But I do know the city will commit to giving 125 acres, if approved by council. To suggest we’re only going to give 25 acres is pure nonsense.”

Lalloway didn’t support the land swap and proposed keeping the existing site designated by the city council, endorsed by state legislation and financed by earmarks from the federal, state and city governments.

“I said so from day one. This is a complicated deal and we should have stuck with the original proposals. We had it all ready to go.”

City officials are indeed facing tough challenges here to stay in control of their own local planning – balancing the interests of taxpayers, developers, the county and the state.

Yet veterans deserve certainty.

These brave men and women, who will soon be followed by the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, shouldn’t have to keep on fighting, literally into their graves.