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Irvine voters will decide the location of Orange County’s first veterans cemetery after a contentious meeting that pitted members of the public and City Council against each other over whether to overturn a land swap ordinance between the city and a developer.

“Let’s keep it civil, for Pete’s sake. This is the United States. We don’t have to be so contentious. I love my country, I love what everybody is trying to do,” former Marine Martha Hoff said during public comment. She urged the council not to overturn its ordinance and added everyone, regardless of which side they were on, was doing what they thought was right.

After nearly two hours of combative public comments and over an hour of aggressive council deliberations, the City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to let voters decide June 5 whether the cemetery will be on strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange or on a site near the center of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

The council had two options: either overturn its zoning ordinance which authorized swapping the city-owned land near the center of the former base for the developer-owned strawberry fields, or leave the choice to voters.

Supporters of putting the cemetery near the heart of the former marine base had gathered more than 19,000 signatures for a referendum to overturn the zoning ordinance that created the land swap. Irvine resident and US Army veteran Ed Pope, aided by former Mayor Larry Agran, started the petition efforts in October and had 30 days to collect the signatures.

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.

Councilman Jeff Lalloway and Councilwoman Lynn Schott, who’ve steadfastly opposed the swap, voted in favor of overturning the ordinance, but failed to gain a third vote. Both council members voted against sending the question to the ballot.

“We have close to 20,000 residents of Irvine, residents, let me emphasize — Irvine Residents, who want to keep it at the original site … I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lalloway said of the original site near the center of the former base.  

The city owns 125 acres — the original cemetery site — near the heart of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near the Great Park, which still has portions of taxiways, jet testing buildings, barracks, an active Federal Aviation Administration antenna array and other miscellaneous buildings on it.

Developer FivePoint owns the 125 acres on Bake Parkway that are being used for strawberry fields and has no buildings on it.

The council voted for the swap last June. And while Pope and his supporters were gathering signatures in October to overturn the swap, the strawberry fields were dedicated as a veterans cemetery during a private ceremony put on by FivePoint.

A lawsuit also was filed against the city the same day the signatures were turned into the city clerk. The lawsuit alleges the city didn’t follow the law when it decided to move the cemetery. The original site was the product of a city ordinance, the lawsuit claims, so a land swap also would have to be done through an ordinance, as required under state law.

The land swap is contingent on the zoning ordinance, which would transfer the entitlements FivePoint has on the strawberry fields including 812,000 square feet of research and development space and nearly 9,000 daily commuter trips allowed in and out of the land it would take over near the heart of the former base.

“The problem that the residents have here and the problem I have, when you get down to the heart of it, this blows up our master plan,” Lalloway said, adding the FivePoint type of development wasn’t meant to be near the Great Park.

The original site would have racked up at least $30 million in demolition costs and at least another $30 million to construct the first phase of the cemetery, which would have housed the remains of approximately 5,000 veterans, according to a California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) report. There’s also hazardous material that would need to be removed. Subsequent phases would have added more graves and cremation tombs over time until they reached a buildout of more than 200,000.

“Why would we spend $100 million of state and local dollars that we desperately need … when we can do a private sector development,” asked Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea.

While the strawberry field site still has no official estimated costs or site plans because CalVet is just starting the site study, FivePoint has pledged $10 million toward construction, so long as the developer gets its entitlements transferred with the site.

Proponents of the swap say the construction will be cheaper to taxpayers on the strawberry fields and get done faster. Opponents say the original site is a more deserving place for the veterans and the swap is a handout to the developer.  

But Lalloway said there’s no way to tell if the strawberry fields will be cheaper because there’s no report on it yet.

“There is going to be a significant amount of cleanup there because they grow strawberries there for generations and they use more pesticides on strawberries than on any other plant known to man,” Lalloway said.

Replied Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea “that’s just completely ridiculous.”

Pope reminded the council the original site was the product of a 2014 unanimous vote.

“In those days, the council listened the voters, the residents, the people, rather than pander to the greed of corporate special interests like FivePoint,” Pope said.

Schott said if FivePoint really cared about the veterans, it would build the cemetery without a swap.

“If FivePoint Communities wants to deliver a cemetery to you … why don’t they just do it? It’s already their land. Why do we need to swap land? Because they want to build … they want to do other things with it. It’s not about altruism,” Schott said.

Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation Chairman Bill Cook, who helped spearhead efforts along with Assemblywoman Sharon-Quirk Silva starting in 2014, said most of the land swap opponents weren’t there to help the foundation with its cemetery efforts in the first place.

“I wish any of these people, who are sitting on this side of the room, had actually participated with us in that sequence of events, in which case they might be able to get their facts together … I don’t know Mr. (Ed) Pope, I know hardly any of these people who spoke from this side of the group.”

There were claims that the petitioners used misleading information or flat-out lied to get signatures.

City Transportation Commission Vice Chairman Steve Greenberg said people weren’t sure what they were signing.

“They were told that it was a petition for a veterans job center — I was there, I heard that myself,” Greenberg said. “People were just so confused, they didn’t know what they were signing.”

Agran urged the council to listen to Irvine residents and defended against claims that people didn’t know what they were signing.

“You have to honor the citizens who exercise their rights,” Agran said. “People knew what they were signing. They knew what was at stake.”

Pope and his supporters named the petition campaign “Save the Veterans Cemetery.”

Resident Alan Meyerson said a council member was trying to block people from getting signatures while he was volunteering for the campaign.

“I actually saw elected officials trying to stop people from signing a petition … It’s amazing to me that somebody who was elected by the people, would then go and try to stop those same people from trying to exercise their Constitutional rights,” Meyerson said.

But Councilwoman Melissa Fox said “I was on street corners not in any way preventing people from speaking, but the hundreds of residents … that I spoke to did not understand what they were signing when they were handed a petition that said clean water or that said to dig up vets and move them across town.  

“I spoke to hundreds of people and when once or twice I heard someone say, ‘I know what I’m signing, I support Larry Agran,’ I said ‘be my guest.’”

Shea echoed Fox and said “many of them we’re given false information.” She also took aim at Irvine Community News and Views, a local Irvine citizen blog.

“I can’t tell you how much misinformation is being published … the rhetoric in there is really disheartening,” Shea said.  

Mayor Don Wagner said that, while he had no doubt Pope, Agran and Meyerson knew what they were doing, he heard many residents may have been confused.

“I have also heard personally, and anecdotally, others actually thought they were trying to save a cemetery as opposed to trying to decide what site,” Wagner said.

The claims that people were confused when they signed the petition drew the ire of Lalloway.

“I think it’s, frankly, a major insult to call people stupid that they don’t know what they’re signing. They know what they’re signing, you just don’t like what they’re signing,” Lalloway said.  

Additionally, Meyerson said he was shocked by the actions of one veteran during signature gathering efforts.

“At the same time, I saw a veteran who fought for our rights and our freedoms, give the finger to us,” he said. “I’m astounded by that action.”

Cook was that veteran.

“The police were called on me on more than one occasion,” Cook said, adding that an Irvine Police detective called him about a free speech complaint filed against him. “I offer no apologies for my actions.”

Cook also reminded everyone the significance of Jan. 9 and why he was angry that Pope and the petitioners used the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion emblems on some of their fliers.

“This is the 50 year anniversary of Tet (Offensive). I was on a place called Hill 200 in Da Nang, which was one of the first places assaulted by a sapper team — with four dead and seven wounded that night,” Cook said. “When I saw the VFW and the American Legion logo being used by this false flag campaign … I was duly incensed.”

Lalloway also angered Fox’s husband, Mike Fox, who was one of the speakers during public comment.

“First of all, we’re going to have one more speaker. My wife is on her way. So can we just hold up the public comment section for another 15 minutes or so? Just kidding,” Lalloway said.

“That’s not funny!” Mike Fox shouted back as he stood up in the audience.

“It’s funny to me,” Lalloway shot back.

Mike Fox began his rebuttal, but Wagner stepped in.

“Alright, order, order, order,” Wagner said. “Order please. We’re going to proceed by regular order. I understand your outrage.”

“I respect what he said, I was just trying to make a joke,” Lalloway said.

“That was an attack on me!” Mike Fox said.

“Mr. Fox, we already heard from you. We’d like to move this on, if we could,” Lalloway responded.

“I understand your concern. Jokes sometimes backfire, I think,” Wagner said. “Whether that one did or not, is in the eye of the beholder.”

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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