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Irvine voters will decide June 5 whether Orange County’s first veterans cemetery will be near the heart of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro or on the edge of the onetime base near the interchange of the 5 and 405 freeways.

At the center of the location issue is a land swap between the city and developer FivePoint Holdings.

Opponents of the land swap, which gives FivePoint the land near the center of the former base in exchange for its strawberry fields near the freeways, successfully got enough voters to sign petitions for a ballot measure.

“The swap makes sense. This is a win-win for everybody. Because the veterans will have their land and FivePoint would have had the other piece of property anyway,” said former Orange County Employee Association General Manager Nick Berardino in a Tuesday phone interview. Berardino, a Marine Corps Vietnam War combat veteran, is on a committee helping promote the land swap.

But former Irvine mayor Larry Agran said “it’s not a land swap, (it’s) a land swindle. They want to unload that crappy freeway frontage land and trade it (for the original site) … That is worth much more, because they intend to use it for office, commercial, industrial, manufacturing.”

In order to make the land swap possible, the City Council in October changed the zoning of the original site — which still has taxiways, barracks, hangars and jet engine-testing buildings on it — to allow FivePoint’s development entitlements, including 812,000 square feet of research and development space and nearly 9,000 daily commuter trips in and out of the land.

Veterans have been fighting for years for a cemetery in the county. Currently, the nearest cemeteries are in Riverside and San Diego counties. Although local chapters of veterans organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have backed the strawberry field site, a divide remains among veterans.

Many veterans say they want the cemetery at the original site near the center of the base because it’s the last piece of American soil where many men and women stood before flying to war and dying in combat.

Proponents of the strawberry fields say the agricultural site is a more feasible place to build a cemetery because it should cost less money since there is no pavement or buildings that need to be removed.

Both camps agree that space within the El Toro boundaries is “hallowed ground.”

And in a rare display of bipartisan support, both the Republican Party of Orange County and Democratic Party of Orange County have endorsed the strawberry fields.

FivePoint has pledged $10 million to help develop the strawberry field site. It’s still unknown how much it will take to build the cemetery on that site.

“Plus the other important thing, is we’re forcing a developer to pay for it. For paying for the building of it, to pay for the building of the cemetery on top of that land swap,” Berardino said.

Agran, who was in the U.S. Army reserve, said that money probably won’t come through because it’s not in writing.  

“FivePoint says they’ll give $10 million, but it’s not written down anywhere,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It’s not in the transfer agreement or anything … The idea that FivePoint is going pay for it is nonsense.”

The estimated price tag on the hangar site is nearly $80 million for the first phase, according to a California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) report.

A 2014 appraisal of the hangar site by Santa Ana-based Rosenow Spevacek Group Inc. valued the land at $9.4 million, however an updated September 2017 appraisal by Newport Beach-based Hawran and Malm, LLC looked at both sites and valued the hangar land at $4 million, while the strawberry fields were valued at $68 million.

Agran, along with Irvine resident and U.S. Army veteran Ed Pope led a petition drive in October to keep the cemetery location at the hangar site. They submitted nearly 18,500 signatures in November, well past the required 12,000 registered voters.

Meanwhile, Orange County Veteran Memorial Park Foundation Chairman Bill Cook and Berardino — both Vietnam Marines — set up a committee to promote the strawberry fields site. The Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR), sponsored by FivePoint, was formed in April, according to disclosures on Irvine’s website.

FivePoint gave the committee $600,000, according to disclosure forms.

“We’re up against a Goliath here. Developer FivePoint, who as I understand it, is funding the entire ‘Yes’ campaign,” Agran said. “Ours on the other hand is a grassroots effort, with a lot less money, but probably a lot more volunteers.”

Berardino said he appreciates FivePoint stepping up to help and hopes companies follow their lead.

“I think we owe eternal gratitude to FivePoint for stepping up and I wish every other corporation in this county — who’ve enjoyed great success, because so many men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice so we can have the democracy that we have — would join in supporting this effort,” Berardino said.

VALOR started a phone bank Monday at the OCEA headquarters with 21 volunteers, including Cook, to reach out to Irvine voters.

Agran said his group will be using social media and signs to promote the original site for the June 5 vote. He also said he doesn’t see many Irvine veterans who support the strawberry fields.

“I know literally of two veterans in Irvine who are very close to the FivePoint team, who favor the freeway site. But other than that, I detect no ground swell for the strawberry fields in Irvine,” Agran said.

There also was court intervention on some of the ballot language. Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm ordered the ballot question reworded so it doesn’t appear “partial” to a site.

Cook’s foundation, along with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), helped secure a veterans cemetery site in Irvine originally at the hangar site in 2014.

Progress on the cemetery was at a standstill until April 2017, when two council members made two different proposals.

One request was from Councilwoman Christina Shea, who wanted to start a 125-acre land swap with FivePoint that would trade the city land next to the Great Park and near the heart of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for the FivePoint-owned 125-acre strawberry fields on Bake Parkway, next to the 5 and 405 interchange.

The other proposal was from Councilman Jeff Lalloway, who wanted to keep the cemetery at the original 125-acre hangar site near the heart of the old El Toro base and pledge $38 million in city funds to help construct the cemetery. Additionally, Quirk-Silva asked for $30 million from the state and had another $10 million lined up in Federal grants.

In a news conference last year, Gov. Jerry Brown said he will support whichever site is picked.

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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