Supporters who want to build Orange County’s first veterans cemetery near the heart of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station rather than on strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 freeways, turned in more than 18,500 signatures Thursday to call a special election on the issue.

The group needs at least 12,000 valid signatures of Irvine registered voters to put the issue on the ballot.

But backers of the strawberry fields site said they turned in the signatures of 2,800 people who said they wanted to take their names off the petition to build the cemetery near the center of the old Air Station and predicted many other signatures may not be valid.

Leading up to Thursday, both sides were in a pitched battle through email and social media campaigns against one another.

U.S. Army veteran Ed Pope launched “Save the Veterans Cemetery” campaign last month in an effort to keep the cemetery site at the heart of the former Marine Corps Air Station near the Great Park. He acted after the city council approved a 125 acre-for-acre land swap with developer FivePoint Holdings for the land near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange.

“Representative democracy often works, but when it doesn’t, we need to go to direct democracy,” Pope said to supporters gathered in front of the Irvine City Hall Thursday afternoon. “We had a moment here in town when representative democracy was no longer working.”

But Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation Chairman Bill Cook, who supports the strawberry fields site, said many of the signatures gathered on behalf of the original site, may be invalid.

“They (signature gatherers) saturated UC Irvine,” he said, adding that a number of those signatures aren’t registered voters in Irvine.

The signatures were delivered to the city clerk at approximately 4 p.m. Thursday after the Pope’s group waited for last-minute signatures to come in. With the last minute deliveries, supporters estimated the total at more than 19,000.  Now the clerk has to begin a preliminary count and from there, hand over the signature forms to the Registrar of Voters to be certified.

Former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a backer of the referendum, was among those who turned out to deliver the signatures to the city clerk. Agran said if they have enough valid signatures, one of three things will happen: the council will reverse the land swap; the council will call a special election, or the referendum will be on next year’s November ballot.

The battle over where the cemetery should be already is being fought between those who back the original site and those who favor the land acquired in the land swap.

Cook and his supporters showed up at locations throughout Irvine where signature gatherers were seeking to convince voters to back the referendum.

Pope and his supporters say they were harassed by the opposition in the 28 days they had to collect the signatures.

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 El Toro site still has portions of aircraft taxiways, ramps, hangars, jet testing buildings, barracks and an active Federal Aviation Administration antenna array and an estimated $78 million price tag to develop the first phase.

There’s no estimate yet for the cost to build the first phase on the strawberry field site, but Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) previously said the available funding through state and federal sources should be enough to cover the cost. Quirk-Silva spearheaded the effort to secure a veterans cemetery in Orange County through legislation. Five Point has promised to donate $10 million to develop the first phase of the strawberry fields site.

But Pope and his supporters say the majority of the council sold out to FivePoint.

Mayor Don Wagner, Councilwoman Christina Shea and Councilwoman Melissa Fox opted for the land swap, while Councilman Jeff Lalloway and Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott have been unflinching in their opposition to the swap.

“The three stooges (Wagner, Shea and Fox) for the big developer FivePoints, they put kind of commercial and corporate greed ahead of their responsibility to us, the residents of this town,” Pope said. “These actions provoked me and many veterans to come together … to form the committee (to start a petition) and save the cemetery.”

Agran told Voice of OC Thursday “we had a great proposal for a great project. It was within 10 days of commencing construction. Then three members of the City Council — at the behest of FivePoint (Holdings) — pulled the plug.” Agran said the original site was fully funded through the city and state.

However, Cook said the original site never stood a chance at developing into a cemetery.

“There was a designation to say, ‘let’s do this.’ … we never went farther than the (site) report — there was no additional funding put together,” Cook said. “The city sat there. They slow walked it and were trying to kill it. It was very obvious to us.”

Furthermore, the original site had a paved road built through it recently, Cook said. He said that the Department of Veterans Affairs forbids any streets through a veterans cemetery.

“That tells us … they (city council) never planned on allowing a veterans cemetery to go there and the Veterans Administration standards will not allow through traffic in a cemetery,” Cook said Thursday afternoon as he watched the petitioners gather in front of City Hall. “If they (the petitioners) saved the veterans cemetery, I’d like to know where they’re going to put it.”

Wagner signed the agreement for the land swap Oct. 27 and the strawberry fields site had a private dedication ceremony the following day. Over 200 people showed up, including many veterans and officials from all levels of government, to take part in the dedication.

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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