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Irvine City Councilman Jeff Lalloway said Monday he will ask the City Council to approve Orange County’s first veterans cemetery in its original site near the center of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro after voters overwhelmingly rejected a land swap that would have moved it to strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 freeways.

But Mayor Don Wagner said in a phone interview Monday that Supervisor Todd Spitzer has been working on a new site, but it isn’t in Irvine.

“There is a site that Supervisor Spitzer has been working on — that isn’t in the city of Irvine — that is a financeable site,” Wagner said. “If Irvine isn’t the place, let’s find a place that works. It’s sad. I thought Irvine would be the place.”

“This is not new news,” Spitzer said Tuesday, before the County Board of Supervisors’ budget hearing. He said the site is county-owned land near the 91 freeway and 241 tollroad interchange that was given to the county by developer the Irvine Company and is zoned as open space and cemetery use.

“My first priority has always been [having the veterans cemetery] on the base,” Spitzer said. “I’m not pulling in any way whatsoever [for the county-owned land]. It’s not my place to tell anybody to give up…it’s up to the veterans…my land is free, it’s big, it’s in a great location, it’s just not the base.”

Lalloway said in a phone interview Monday “I plan to introduce a motion — which fulfills my promise to the voters of bringing back the cemetery to the original spot and try to have that one move forward as the location of the veterans cemetery.”

But Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea said, in a Monday phone interview, it’s not that easy and there isn’t funding in the upcoming state budget.

“So there has to be some time to look through this stuff and see what we can do and what we can’t do,” she said.

Councilwoman Melissa Fox echoed some of Shea’s concerns and said state legislation designating the strawberry fields as a veterans cemetery has to be amended.

“Number one, there has to be money; number two, it has to be amended; number three, there has to be a critical path to move forward to build on the [original site]; number four, you need a traffic study,” Fox said in a Monday phone interview.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) spearheaded the original 2014 efforts to secure the original site through the Legislature and had the location amended last year to the strawberry fields on Bake Parkway.

Quirk-Silva’s office said the Assemblywoman isn’t going to approach the state Legislature for funding or site amendments until the Irvine City Council approves a site.

A 2016 California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) study estimated the cost of the original site at $78 million. The site still has hangars, barracks, taxiways, jet testing buildings and an active Federal Aviation Administration antenna array on it.

Quirk-Silva’s office released a CalVet cost estimate on the new site June 1, which estimated the cemetery at the strawberry fields at $38 million.

Wagner said the he supported the land swap because the original site was too costly.

“One of the reasons I approved of the swap is that it was never a realistic site given all the work that needs to done and the all the expenses … the Feds need to come up with the money, the State needs to come up with the money,” said Wagner. “We have a $6 million budget deficit that we need to close.”  

Lalloway said he hopes Wagner won’t “kill” the cemetery.

“I read Mayor (Don) Wagner said there won’t be a cemetery now and I hope he’s not going to kill it. In fact there are those of us who would like to see a veterans cemetery in the city,” Lalloway said.

But Wagner said, “Lalloway can make his motion, but at the end of the day it’s a lot of grandstanding if he can’t pay for it. I’m not interested in grandstanding, I’m interested in getting a cemetery for the veterans.”

Lalloway, in a memo sent to the city clerk at noon Tuesday, put an item on the June 26 council agenda that would reauthorize the original cemetery site near the heart of the former Marine base. Lalloway said he also wants the city manager to organize a budget and schedule for building the first phase of the cemetery, which will be funded through the Great Park General Fund.

He said he also wants to form a two-member committee with Wagner to lobby the state for funding and “others in Sacramento, in furtherance of our goal to have Phase 1 of the Veterans Cemetery in the Great Park operational by Veterans Day, November 11, 2020.”

As of Monday night, the June 5 election “no” votes on the cemetery swap outnumbered the “yes” votes by a margin of 25 percent. Orange County has no veterans cemetery. The closest are in Riverside and San Diego counties.

Measure B asked Irvine voters if they supported an ordinance approved by the City Council last year. It amended 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 have been built on the strawberry fields if Measure B was approved.

The ballot question asked: “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?”

“It’s probably one of the most confusing initiatives that ever went in front of the voters,” Shea said. “Most of the ‘No’ vote was about no more traffic, no more cars … I talked to many, many voters and they were confused and when they’re confused, they vote no.”

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 would’ve transferred the developer’s strawberry fields entitlements, including 812,000 square feet of office space and roughly 8,500 daily commuter trips, to the land near the center of the former base. FivePoint also committed $10 million to the new site — if the swap had been successful.

FivePoint spent roughly $750,000 on the “yes” campaign, according to disclosure statements on the city’s website. The money was used to fund a phone bank operation, slate mailers and lawn signs.

The Santa Ana Police union also spent $25,000 on slate mailer supporting the strawberry fields.

The “No” campaign was funded by Irvine Community News and Views, a community newspaper that has long taken a position against the land swap. The campaign was funded through loans from the newspaper and former Mayor Larry Agran, who helped get the measure on the ballot. There isn’t any mention of slate mailers in the disclosures, but the committee did pay for FaceBook, Google and Instagram ads. Adding up numerous disclosures, the land swap opposition campaign had about $370,000.

Gov. Jerry Brown said he would back whatever site Irvine picked 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.”

Should the City Council move forward again with the original site, Lalloway said he hopes Brown would help.

“Both (Gov.) Jerry Brown and Sharon Quirk-Silva promised to support a cemetery in Irvine wherever the city chose it to be and now I hope they’re going to follow through on the funds because the choice is not just by the City Council, it’s by the citizens of the city,” Lalloway said.  

Fox said she was skeptical of Lalloway’s plan.

“I’d be very interested to hear what he has to say, see what possibilities he’s going to float and what’s the path to build it,” she said. “We’re not in the last (state) budget, we’re not in this budget. Are we just going to keep asking the same question?”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this report.

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