Veterans Cemetery Location in Irvine Still Unclear

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The Irvine City Council discusses plans for the Irvine veterans cemetery Sept. 26, 2017.

The location of Orange County’s first veterans cemetery remains unclear after the Irvine City Council directed staff to identify a site in or around the Great Park and put the project through the planning process.

Councilman Jeff Lalloway brought a motion Tuesday night to reinstate original cemetery site near the heart of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, adjacent to the Great Park. But, before it could go to a vote, Mayor Don Wagner introduced a substitute motion that directs different commissions and city staff to start studying the original site and explore other city-owned land.

“Give me a site,” Wagner told Voice of OC after the meeting. “You tell me where it can be … is it a golf course (that’s slated to be built in the Great Park)? Is it the ARDA land (original site)? I don’t think it will be the ARDA land though.”

Wagner, along with Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea and Councilwoman Melissa Fox voted for the substitute motion and said Lalloway’s funding source isn’t sustainable. The money Lalloway sought was from the Great Park development fund — separate from the general fund.

Councilwoman Lynn Schott and Lalloway dissented. Immediately following the vote, many people in the audience booed and jeered the council.

At least 12 different people yelled “recall!” and a man screamed, “you’re crooked!”

Lalloway called for using money from the Great Park development fund — at least $40 million of it — to demolish dilapidated buildings and other structures on the original site and prepare it for construction. The land still has taxiways, hangars, jet-testing buildings, an active Federal Aviation Administration antenna array and other miscellaneous buildings on it.

Wagner said Lalloway’s motion was on the right track, but needed to follow the city’s planning process.

“Lalloway’s motion was around half of what needed to be done — it needed to be fleshed out,” Wagner said.

During the meeting, Lalloway said Wagner’s motion, which Wagner passed paper copies of to the council and the city clerk, will “kill” the veterans cemetery in the city.

“And what this is, what I’m handed — this motion — this is what you do when you want to kill something,” Lalloway said.

The Council’s move comes two weeks after the Orange County Board of Supervisors directed staff to begin studying roughly 280 acres of county-owned land for a veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills.

During the meeting, Shea said much of the Great Park money, which stems from a settlement with the state over the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency funds, is tied to other commitments.

“We have these agreements with our development partner that we have to be committed to building the Great Park (with the fund),” Shea said.

Fox said Lalloway’s motion would halt the cemetery.

“However, we have a lot of undeveloped land. We have the entirety of the (Great) Park. We have what I heard tonight is a golf course. We have the entire cultural terrace to plan,” Fox said. “We have over 600 unplanned acres. What we cannot do is move forward in a fashion that kills this cemetery.”

The city was going to swap the original 125-acre original site for developer FivePoint Holdings-owned agricultural 125-acre land next to the 5 and 405 interchange on Bake Parkway. Irvine voters rejected the land swap June 5 by a margin of over 25 points.

Lalloway called the vote a “landslide.”

“The ‘No’ on the land swap won 63 to 37 (percentage points). I’ve been around politics for quite some time … I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lalloway said.

A state Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) 2016 site study estimated the price tag for the first phase the cemetery at $77.3 million — demolition and site preparation make up the bulk of the cost.

According to the CalVet study, the fully built-out cemetery would be home to over 210,000 graves, with most of them slated for cremated remains, or “cremains.” The $77.3 million first phase would provide 5,000 graves for cremains, 3,250 of which would be columbarium spots. CalVet estimated the cemetery would serve veterans’ burial needs for 100 years.

The Bake Parkway land, which is being used as strawberry fields, was cheaper to build on, according to a state Department of General Services (DGS) June 2018 preliminary report. It estimated the price tag for the first phase at $38.6 million.

Like the original site, the DGS study conducted at the strawberry fields was for 5,000 graves with the same ratio of in-ground and columbarium spots for cremains.

If the swap had passed, FivePoint pledged $10 million for the strawberry fields site.

Shortly after last month’s election, Nick Berardino, former general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, asked Supervisor Todd Spitzer to consider using land off the 91 freeway and the 241 toll road in Anaheim Hills for a veterans cemetery.

Berardino, a combat Marine in the Vietnam War, also chairs the Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR). The alliance supported the land swap in Irvine and actively campaigned for “Yes on Measure B.”

The Board of Supervisors directed county staff to start studying the site June 26, after veterans from VALOR spoke in favor of the Anaheim Hills site during public comment. Staff is scheduled to report back to supervisors on or before Aug. 14.

During his opening remarks, Lalloway warned against the Anaheim Hills site.

“Remember, the county site is not happening … don’t fall for that red herring — the county is not going to save you,” Lalloway said, citing delays due to studies, politics, legislation and funding. “When has the county saved anybody?”

Roughly 50 people spoke at the City Council’s rowdy Tuesday meeting. The majority, which included some Irvine veterans, were in favor of Lalloway’s plan to go with original site.

A minority, including veterans, were in favor of Spitzer’s proposed site in Anaheim Hills or the strawberry fields.

When someone from the minority spoke, boos and jeers erupted from the audience.

Berardino said to let the county move forward on the Anaheim Hills site and leveled his ire at Lalloway.

“This is cheap politics. This is sewer politics,” Berardino said. “That’s what this is about … I don’t have beef with Jeff (Lalloway), he’s playing politics.”

Lalloway shook his head at Berardino’s comment.

“Yes you are,” Berardino said. He later yelled at the council, “stand up to that!”

Many people booed Berardino during and immediately after his comments.

“I think this is the right thing to do contrary to what Nick Berardino said about some slick political play … this is the right thing for our veterans,” Lalloway later said. 

Former Mayor Larry Agran, who helped get the land swap question on the ballot, told the council to stop the delaying.

“No more political detours, no more development schemes, no more delays. Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery now, starting tonight. Adopt Council Member Lalloway’s Motion,” Agran said.

At one point, Shea stepped out of the chamber while someone was speaking during public comment, prompting heckles and jeers from the audience when she returned.

The City Council decided to go with a dual track in April 2017: one option was the original site, which was brought forward by Lalloway and the other option was the land swap with developer FivePoint Holdings, brought by Shea.

“I worked with the veterans, we found a land swap. This was not FivePoints’ idea, it was our proposal,” Shea said during council deliberations, followed by hisses and laughter from the audience. “You can laugh and snicker if you want, but that’s what it was.”

During his visit May 2017 when he toured both sites, Gov. Jerry Brown said the location would be the Council’s choice and the state “would back them up.”

In a split vote June 2017, the five-member council opted to go for the land swap. Lalloway and Schott dissented. Fox was the swing vote who proposed moving forward on both options at the April 2017 meeting.

During public comment, many people accused Wagner, Shea and Fox of selling out to FivePoints for the land swap.

“The answer rife in this audience is of course we were bought off,” Wagner said during the meeting. “Maybe the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars and all the other groups that sent letters of support (for the land swap) were bought off as well. I find that idea offensive and laughable.”

Wagner said the current council hasn’t approved a FivePoint project, or any other housing development except for student housing near the UCI campus.

After the second reading of a zoning ordinance required for the land swap, Irvine resident and U.S. Army veteran Ed Pope, along with Agran, began a petition campaign in October to stop the land swap. Pope and Agran, who was in the Air Force Reserve, turned approximately 18,500 petition signatures to the city clerk in November, well past the roughly 12,000 required amount.

Leading up to the June 5 primary election, proponents of the strawberry fields and supporters of the original site waged battles against each other through social media postings and email blasts. Both sides accused each other of distributing misleading information and the ballot question divided the council — Shea and Fox actively campaigned for the “yes” vote through social media, while Schott and Lalloway criticized them for attempting to sway people’s votes.

Veterans have been fighting to get a cemetery for years in Orange County. Currently the closest veterans cemeteries that aren’t full are in San Diego and Riverside counties.

Although the land swap fight is over in Irvine, the battles surrounding the veterans cemetery haven’t stopped.

On Monday, Fox filed a complaint against resident Harvey Liss to the District Attorney’s office over perceived threats in an attempt to get her to vote for Lalloway’s plan.

In a July 2 email, Liss told Fox she should vote for Lalloway’s plan or could face a recall election.

Liss said he wanted her to vote “for the right thing” and said his mention of recall in the email shouldn’t be considered a threat.

“Liss’s threat is a misuse of the political system.  It is to the people of Irvine that I owe my best efforts, my best judgment, my faithfulness, and my sole allegiance.  I will not be bullied, threatened, or extorted into voting against what I believe to be the best interests of the City of Irvine,” Fox said in a July 9 news release.

He said the threat “is nonsense — they (the City Council) can do whatever they want.” Liss said he isn’t the only one talking about a recall. “A lot of people have asked for a recall.”

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

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. You can reach him at bpho@voiceofoc.org