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The fight for Orange County’s first veterans cemetery in Irvine may not be over.

Irvine resident and U.S. Army veteran Ed Pope has started a petition to overturn the City Council’s decision to swap land with developer FivePoint for a veterans cemetery.

Pope, an outspoken critic of the land swap, began circulating the petition Oct. 13 and has until Nov. 8 to gather the 12,000 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot for a special election, according to a press release.

“As a veteran and someone who has called Irvine home for more than forty years, I am outraged by this land-swap scheme that dishonors our veterans and enables FivePoint Communities to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in windfall profits,” Pope said in the press release.

The land swap would give FivePoint 125 acres that was part of the El Toro Marine base and now is within Irvine’s Great Park. In exchange, FivePoint would give the city 125 acres near the interchange of the 5 and 405 freeways that was on the edge of the Marine base and now is a strawberry field.

“Their scheme is to grab this property and quickly develop it in ways that are totally incompatible with the Great Park and surrounding residential neighborhoods,” Pope said in his news release. Pope favors building the cemetery on the originally approved site near the Great Park.

However, Vietnam Veteran and former Marine Bill Cook said Pope offers no alternative if he’s successful.

“I think this is the ultimate sore loser tantrum,” Cook said Sunday night.  “This petition is a fraud and it is a poison pill to kill the cemetery … how do they propose ever getting started again? They don’t say that.”

Cook said groundbreaking for the strawberry field cemetery site is scheduled for Oct. 27.

Former Mayor and critic of the swap, Larry Agran, said because the original site was secured through the State and Federal level, along with the land approvals, it could leave the swap open to a legal challenge. He has been helping gather petition signatures.

“I’m very much opposed to replacing the veteran’s cemetery in the Great Park that we had approved,” Agran said in a phone interview. “We had pushed along for three years, gaining all the necessary state and federal approvals.”

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.

Cook is also the chairman of the Orange County Memorial Veterans Park Foundation, an organization that has worked with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) to secure a veterans cemetery through the legislature.

He said the original site will take at least $70 million to clean it up. Currently, the site has old hangars, barracks, runways, jet engine testing buildings and active Federal Aviation Administration antenna arrays on it.

Agran said the estimated $78 million price tag for the original site included construction of the first phase. He also said the $30 million from the state was appropriated in its budget for Irvine that was going to be voted on June 15, but the council moved forward with the swap June 6 and killed the $30 million.

“That would get us to the entire $78 million pre funded, which is unheard of. So we were already to go, until the FivePoint land swap, which some people called the land swindle,” Agran said.

The Legislature authorized $30 million toward the Great Park veterans cemetery site and the city of Irvine pledged $38 million, with a potential $10 million from the Federal government.

However, Cook said the $30 million wasn’t secured.

“Sharon (Quirk-Silva) did put in for $30 million … didn’t happen, it turned out to be $5 million,” Cook said, adding that it was requested funds, not secured funds.   

“What isn’t outright lies, is very deceptive statements,” Cook said of the petition campaign.  

According to a Sept. 20 appraisal, the runway site is worth $4 million while the strawberry fields site is worth $68 million.

The petition comes on the heels of a lively special meeting last month that stemmed from claims made by FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad that the city was only going to hand over 25 of 125 acres to the state for the first phase of the cemetery, while potentially developing a hotel and houses on the other land and handing over acreage to the state as needed in the decades that follow.

At the Sept. 26 meeting, council members stressed the state would be getting the deed and the entire 125 acres to the strawberry fields.

“Acre for acre swap, deed for deed … we would then immediately then transfer over to (CA Department of Veterans Affairs) CalVet,” Wagner said Sept. 26. “No hotels, no new houses. Calvet — it’s their property and they’re going to build a cemetery.”

At the Oct. 10 meeting, the City Council finalized a zone change that was needed for a land swap.

During that meeting, Cook said it’s time to stop politicizing veterans and the cemetery and expressed his anger over lawsuit grumblings.

“Good grief. The veterans are getting tired of being drug around like this by sore losers who want to continue this fight. We hope that they have the good sense to withdraw from that position.”

Pope didn’t return calls seeking comment and it’s unknown how many signatures have been gathered so far.

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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