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Voters June 5 could give Orange County its first veterans cemetery but in the political infighting leading up to the election, some veterans fear people have lost sight of who the cemetery is about—veterans.

“I honestly see my buddies and I hear them saying, once again, we as veterans are being used as political pawns,” said Nick Berardino, a Vietnam War Marine combat veteran and a prominent supporter of Measure B, the cemetery issue on the Irvine ballot. Berardino, the former general manager of the Orange County Employees Associatio (OCEA), also is a member of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR), a committee backing establishment of the cemetery on strawberry fields near the intersection of the 5 and 405 freeways.

“I was on the machine gun (in Vietnam) and we were hiding behind a pagoda and the assistant gunner leaned over to get a belt of ammo and got it right on the head,” said Berardino. “Then we come home as Vietnam vets — we’re spit on and shouted at … We had to fight for every inch on the battlefield and now, to get a resting place, we have to fight for every inch against politicians … against competing developers.”

Roger Butow, another Marine Corps Vietnam War combat veteran and an environmentalist who was involved in the early stages of Irvine’s acquisition of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, said veterans are a family that shouldn’t be fighting each other.

“We as veterans, brothers and sisters in arms, we are related. We are family. They (City Council and developer FivePoint Holdings) just split us up and we’ve become the Hatfields and the McCoys and we’re fighting each other,” Butow said. “They should have never let it come to this.”  

“These people never fired a shot. They never fired a shot at the rifle range, let alone fired a shot at another human to take their life. They never heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded.”

Orange County veterans have been fighting for years for a cemetery. The nearest veterans cemeteries are in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego. Local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have backed the strawberry field site.

Measure B asks Irvine voters if they support an ordinance approved by the City Council last year. It amends the city zoning code to allow a land swap, exchanging 125 acres of city land near the heart of the former El Toro base for 125 acres of agricultural land owned by developer FivePoint Holdings. The cemetery would be built on the strawberry fields if Measure B is approved.

The ballot question asks: “Shall Ordinance No. 17-08, approving zone text amendments to allow for a land exchange agreement that facilitates (a) the allocation of development previously planned for the Bake Parkway Site to property near the intersection of Pusan and Irvine Blvd, and (b) the development of the State-approved site for the Southern California Veterans Cemetery on strawberry fields located near the intersection of I-5 and Bake Parkway, be adopted?”

Voters can cast their ballots for either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Both the Republican Party of Orange County and Democratic Party of Orange County have endorsed the land swap.

When the swap was considered in April 2017, the City Council took a dual approach to the issue. It directed city staff to explore the land swap and also voted to commit up to $38 million for the original cemetery site near the center of the former Marine base. Mayor Don Wagner, Councilwoman Melissa Fox and Shea voted in favor of the dual approach, while Councilman Jeff Lalloway and Councilwoman Lynn Schott dissented, saying they wanted to stick with the original site.

Last June, the City Council rescinded its resolution to build the cemetery on the original site and voted to begin a land swap with FivePoint, which has built homes near the original cemetery site. The swap also transfers the developer’s entitlements, including 812,000 square feet of office space and roughly 8,500 daily commuter trips from the strawberry fields to the land near the center of the former base. Schott and Lalloway voted against it. 

“If you vote ‘no,’ (June 5) all you’re doing is saying ‘no’ to the site at the strawberry fields (on Bake Parkway),” Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea said in a telephone interview. “It just nullifies the (City Council’s vote) and the land switch.”

FivePoint said it committed $10 million to help fund the first phase of the veterans cemetery at the strawberry fields if the swap goes through, including making the promise in an April 10 letter to the state Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

After the second reading of the ordinance enabling the land swap in October, former Mayor Larry Agran, along with Irvine resident and U.S. Army veteran Ed Pope, began a petition campaign to overturn the council’s vote.

Pope and Agran’s group, Save the Veterans Cemetery, turned in nearly 19,000 signatures in  November, well past the required 12,000 registered Irvine voter signatures. The successful signature drive meant the City Council either had to rescind its vote creating the land swap or put the issue on the ballot. It opted for the ballot.

Lalloway — a supporter of the original site which still has approximately 77 buildings on it including hangars, jet engine testing buildings, barracks, a flight tower and aircraft taxiways on it — said if Irvine voters shoot down the land swap, he will immediately bring a motion before the council to reinstate the original site.

“If that’s (the motion) approved, we already have plans for it. CalVet (California Department of Veterans Affairs) has already approved those plans … it was already submitted to the US department of Veterans Affairs. We’re in line to get $10 million,” said Lalloway, who originally introduced the motion to have Irvine fund up to $38 million for development of the original site last year. Total cost of turning the original site into a cemetery, including removing the buildings and cleaning up hazardous waste from its days as a military base, are estimated at about $77 million.

But Wagner said it’s not that easy.

“If ‘No’ prevails, we’ll start building the cemetery on the [hangar] site. That’s just not true. Jeff (Lalloway) and (Councilwoman) Lynn (Schott) can bring a motion … that’s just not true,” Wagner said, in a phone interview. “The truth of the matter is that the [hangar] site is not supported by the state, it’s not funded and we got a $6 million budget deficit we’re facing.”

“The Veterans Administration has told me they want to go with the new site. The governor has told me they want to go with the new site … We’re nowhere close to building on [the hangar] site,” Wagner said.

The June 2016 CalVet project report on the hangar site estimated the cost to build the first phase of the cemetery at $77 million, including the roughly $30 million in demolition and cleanup costs.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) originally asked for $30 million from the state Legislature and managed to get it into the 2017-18 proposed budget while the swap was being considered by the City Council.

But the City Council decided June 6 last year to swap the land with FivePoint, which also forced some changes in the state Legislature.

Last year’s Senate Bill 96, legislation which amended various state codes in order to implement the 2017-18 budget, changed the location of the cemetery from the hangar site to the strawberry fields. The current budget allocates $5 million to the strawberry field site so CalVet can study and develop a master plan. CalVet still is studying the site.

Quirk-Silva, along with Orange County Memorial Park Foundation Chairman Bill Cook, spearheaded the 2014 efforts to secure a cemetery site in Orange County through the Legislature at the hangar site.

Gov. Jerry Brown said he would back whatever site Irvine picks when he visited both sites and held a news conference last May. He toured the sites with Silva and then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

“Let the locals pick and we’ll back them up. So there it is,” Brown said at the May 2017 news conference. “Let’s see what it is. Obviously one always has to be careful with the spending of money. What do you get? What don’t you get? It will be looked at. But mostly the Irvine City Council has to make a decision and we can talk about it.”

Agran, who served in the US Army reserve, recalled Brown and other legislators’ statements.

“What did the Governor say, what did Speaker Rendon say, what did (Assemblywoman) Sharon Quirk-Silva say? They all said whatever the city of Irvine decides, we will be there with funding. I just assume that if the voters vote no on this land swap scheme, then Lalloway will introduce this resolution and say ‘we’ve been on this unfortunate detour for a year,” and approach the Legislature,” Agran said in a phone interview.

Lalloway said he would hold Brown and the Legislature to their prior commitments.

“I would hope that they would follow through on their promise to provide the additional funding to get this thing built so we can all move forward,” Lalloway said. “I will do everything I can to make certain that veteran cemetery happens. If that’s making certain the state government and Jerry Brown stick by the promises they made, so be it.”

Wagner, a former Assemblyman, said there is virtually no chance to get the original site funded in the upcoming 2018-19 budget.

“Here’s how you know it … just look at the June 5 vote and in 10 days after June 5, the budget has to be passed by the Legislature or they don’t get paid. Now you tell me which Legislature is going to hold up the budget so Sharon (Quirk-Silva) can do emergency legislation and put it in and grab $40 million, that are right now earmarked for other projects?” Wagner asked. “So the possibility for the state coming up for money is so miniscule as to be non-existent … and that’s just the budget process.”

If the swap is turned down, Shea said she isn’t willing to spend the money on the original site without putting the question before voters.

“I want a cemetery, but I cannot put the taxpayer’s finance on it unless the voters approve it,” Shea said. “If our residents want to spend up to $80 million to build a cemetery at the [hangar] site, of course I would honor the voters’ request.”  

Berardino said if Irvine voters vote “No” on the ballot measure, any hope of a cemetery is dead because the $78 million price tag is too high. He and Cook, who is also on VALOR, have been manning phone banks with about a dozen veteran volunteers since the start of May to promote the land swap to Irvine voters.

The idea that the city and state will get enough money for the hangar site “is patently ridiculous and anybody who believes that has been asleep,” Berardino said, recalling the previous treatment and promises made to vets. “It’s time for this country to wake up.”

Wagner agreed with Berardino’s assessment of the funding situation.

“Bill Cook and Nick Berardino are absolutely right. This is a tough thing,” Wagner said, adding if Irvine voters decide against the swap, a cemetery may not be dead, but it would be delayed ‘indefinitely, but a minimum of a year, probably more.”  

Agran said there could be time to put in funding for the original site in the upcoming budget, or the city could start demolition and construction on the hangar site and get reimbursed by the state.

“They can do that or they can just have an appropriation to reimburse the city to go forward with the demolition, with the site clean up and the preliminary site preparation,” Agran said, adding the city can use money from a settlement with the Department of Finance.

In 2014, Irvine agreed to drop three lawsuits against the department in order to recoup $292 million in the now-dissolved Redevelopment Agency from the department.

Agran, who was on the City Council at the time, said the money is “paid out over the span of 15 years, I think at the rate of about $20 million a year, into a fund, a park development fund.”

Lalloway said the fund is geared for building things in the Great Park and at the former El Toro air station.

“So there’s about $250 million and its for building things at El Toro,” Lalloway said, noting it can be used for the cemetery.  

Agran also has expressed doubt FivePoint will follow through on its $10 million commitment.

His skepticism drew the ire of FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad.  

“We’ve never said anything that we did not do. Our record speaks for itself. Our commitment is, we do the swap, we put $10 million on the table for the veterans to start building the first phase,” Haddad said in a phone interview.

Many Irvine residents have expressed concerns about FivePoint’s strawberry field development entitlements being transferred to the hangar site.

Haddad said the entire site may not be used as office space and there’s no plan for a massive development in the area, despite what the land swap opponents say.

“I can see a combination of a neighborhood shopping center with some residential, maybe some office that is more of a neighborhood type of office, maybe a healthcare type of center … things like that. That’s probably what that site’s begging to be, but it’s definitely not begging to be an office complex or industrial complex,” Haddad said.

Agran isn’t convinced.

“It just diminishes the quality of life in our community by moving the veterans cemetery over, now, to the freeway site and all that development and freeway site traffic would be moved into the heart of the residential areas in Irvine,” Agran said.

But Haddad said some homeowners in the area surrounding the hangar site may not like a cemetery nearby.

There were concerns that having a cemetery close to homes would create bad Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy, when talks of a swap first surfaced in 2016. Many Chinese residents living near the original site attended the April 2016 City Council meeting and voiced their support for the swap, but there wasn’t enough traction on the council to move forward then.

“So the location of the cemetery becomes very important … you have to respect that some people have a negative reaction of a cemetery being close to homes,” Haddad said. “Who from a logical point of view thinks that a cemetery belongs next to a high school and a K through eight (elementary and middle school)?”

“It’s not easy for me to give up land by the freeway. That’s valuable land sitting on the frontage of the freeway … but when I look at it in terms of overall value in the community … having a cemetery in the original place creates a negative value,” Haddad said.

FivePoint built the homes near the original site and the sports complex at the adjacent Great Park, along with numerous other amenities in the area.

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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