The city of Irvine and developer FivePoint Holdings are sponsoring a flag raising and dedication ceremony today for Orange County’s first veterans cemetery on what are now strawberry fields next to the 5 and 405 freeway interchange.
The new site is from a land swap between Irvine and developer FivePoint Holdings. The original site was adjacent to the Great Park on land that still had portions of aircraft taxiways, ramps, hangars, jet testing buildings, barracks and an active Federal Aviation Administration antenna array.
Irvine Mayor Don Wagner signed the agreement Thursday, according to an email from the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation. The 125 acres of strawberry fields will be transferred to the state Department Veterans Affairs (CalVet) which will design, build and operate the cemetery.
“We’re not breaking ground, but we are dedicating ground,” FivePoint spokesman Steve Churm said in a Thursday phone interview. “It’s a private event on the site. Many, many people have been invited,” including numerous elected officials. It’s expected that 150 to 200 people will be there.
The event is being hosted by FivePoint, Irvine and the Orange County Memorial Veterans Park Foundation. The foundation has been working with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who secured the state cemetery through legislation.
In addition to Quirk-Silva and Wagner, officials scheduled to attend include: Councilwomen Christina Shea and Melissa Fox; County Supervisor Chairwoman Michelle Steele and Supervisor Todd Spitzer and Representatives Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and Mimi Walters (R-Irvine).
The veteran foundation President Bill Cook and FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad will be there also.
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 years. Currently, the closest veterans cemeteries are in Riverside and San Diego Counties.
Proponents of the swap say the new site is shovel ready and construction can begin almost immediately and at less cost to taxpayers than the original site.
The original site would have cost nearly $78 million to build the first phase, which would have made room for 5,000 grave sites intended for cremated remains, according to the 2016 California Department of Veterans Affairs study.
The land swap gives FivePoint 125 acres that was part of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and now is adjacent to Irvine’s Great Park. In exchange, FivePoint is giving the city 125 acres near the freeway interchange that was on the edge the Marine air base.
An appraisal released last month values the strawberry field site at $68 million and the El Toro site at $4 million.
Meanwhile, Irvine resident and Army veteran Ed Pope 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 to move forward with the zone change or not.
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.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.