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Orange County’s first veterans cemetery was dedicated Friday at what is now strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 interchange, marking a milestone in a battle fought by county veterans for over 15 years.

The private event, funded by FivePoint Holdings and co-hosted by Irvine and the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, gathered nearly 200 people to raise the United States flag and dedicate the site of the future Southern California Veterans Cemetery.

“This is the America that I love. This is the America that we are. And we are great when we are together and we are great when we leave together, as you can see in this bipartisan movement,” Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) said. She spearheaded the state level effort and secured an Orange County site through legislation.

Veterans from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan attended, along with their families. A majority of them wore yellow Southern California Veterans Cemetery baseball caps that featured the “flying bull” from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

The cemetery originally was going to be built adjacent to the Great Park on land that still has portions of the Air Station’s aircraft taxiways, ramps, hangars, jet testing buildings, barracks and an active Federal Aviation Administration antenna array.

Orange County Veteran Memorial Park Foundation President Bill Cook, a Vietnam veteran and Marine, praised the strawberry field site. “This is El Toro, look at it. This is land that has never been built on – nothing.”

“And look, it has been encased in strawberries,” Cook added. “There are no burrowing owls, no endangered weeds, there’s nothing out there. It’s almost like if it’s been preserved by divine providence for its destiny as Orange County’s hallowed ground.”

Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Cook, who also was a driving force to get a veterans cemetery in Orange County, noted the old site at the heart of the former Marine Corps Air Station, faced restrictions requiring wildlife be protected.

A land swap deal between FivePoint and the city of Irvine changed the location of the cemetery. In June the City Council voted for the land swap. FivePoint has pledged up to $10 million to help fund the first phase of construction.

Veterans have sought a cemetery in Orange County for more than 15 years. Currently, the closest veterans cemeteries are in Riverside and San Diego Counties.

The original site is near the heart of the old El Toro air base and the strawberry field site is near on the edge, at the end of one of the former runways.

The dedication ceremony featured a WWII-era flyover of two P-52 Mustang fighters, a B-25 Mitchell bomber and a P-40 Warhawk fighter supplied by Chino-based Planes of Fame.

“I don’t think I’d be here without the veterans … I want to say thank you,” County Chairwoman Michelle Steele told the veterans Friday, noting that her family had to flee from North Korean forces during the Korean War.

There also was a 21-gun salute before the United States flag was raised. Shortly before the flag raising, Cook said it’s time for the older veterans to pass the torch to the Afghan and Iraq war veterans. Then, a group of Afghan and Iraq war veterans raised the American flag while all veterans saluted.

Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Meanwhile, Irvine resident and Army veteran Ed Pope has started a petition to halt implementation of an Oct. 10 zone change ordinance needed to help finalize the land swap agreement. Should he get the required 12,000 signatures by Nov. 8, a referendum will be on next year’s November ballot for Irvine residents to decide if they want to move forward with the zone change.

Pope wants to keep the location of the cemetery at the original site adjacent to the Great Park. Through the petition, he hopes to nullify the entitlements for FivePoint that would transfer with the land swap. Among those entitlements are 8,500 daily commuter trips and over 800,000 square feet of research and development space. If he succeeds, FivePoint would have little interest in the land swap, according to the petition website.

Since Pope started the petition Oct. 13, the rival Orange County Memorial Veterans Park Foundation has taken to social media and email to discredit the movement, calling the petition organizers “paid mercenaries.” The foundation said it currently is looking for “street troops” to organize against the signature gatherers at various marketplaces throughout Irvine this weekend.

“You know, Walt Disney designed the mascot for this location in 1944. You know what it was? The flying bull and I’m tired of all the political bull in this town. It’s time for the bull to stop,” County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said at Friday’s dedication.

“Today there’s more fighting. There’s fighting about what this land around us is going to be,” Spitzer said. “You protected us. Now this land — these fields around us — will always be here to protect you. It’s your turn to be protected. And we will honor that.”

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner also expressed disappointment at the petition going around town.

“What we’re fighting now is the very ill-conceived referendum that (former mayor) Larry Agran is pushing,” Wagner said in an interview after Friday’s ceremony. “I’m just disappointed that they’re still trying to stop this obviously wonderful thing for our veterans.”

Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Quirk-Silva said in a Friday interview she’s still optimistic about the new site, despite the petition.

“I’m hopeful, or optimistic. But, you know, we’ve had a lot of twists and turns in this project, but I think we’ve done everything we can from the state side to be neutral on the site, to bring forward the legislation and the investment of almost $6 million.”

She said the Federal Government can give a grant of up to $20 million, in addition to $10 million from FivePoint and the State’s $6 million should be enough to cover the first phase of the cemetery, although Quirk-Silva didn’t have the exact estimate with her Friday.

If the petition fails and there’s no referendum, the land will be transferred to the State Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) on approximately Jan. 10, 2018, according to an email from Irvine Spokesman Craig Reem. If the petition succeeds and lands a referendum on next November’s ballot, then “after the defeat of the referendum, such zone change is upheld,” the email reads.

It’s still unclear what happens if a lawsuit or the referendum succeeds.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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