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Orange County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer county property on the eastern edge of Anaheim for potential development as a veteran and civilian cemetery, as they clashed over whether it would let Irvine “off the hook” for a proposed veterans cemetery at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
The action to transfer the 283-acre Anaheim property, known as Mountain Park, to the Orange County Cemetery District was encouraged by several of the veterans who have been working for decades to establish a cemetery in Orange County for former military service members.
“All we’re asking this Board of Supervisors to do today – all we’re asking you – is to have our back. That’s it,” said Nick Berardino, a Vietnam War combat Marine who went on to lead the county government’s largest employees union, in comments to the supervisors before the vote.
“We’re dying,” Berardino said of his fellow veterans. “We’re dying. We have no place to go.”
The Mountain Park property lies to the east of Anaheim Hills, just east of the 91 and 241 freeway interchange. Under the county’s agreement to transfer the land, which was overseen by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, up to half of the burial space at the property can be reserved for non-veterans, and cemetery district officials would have up to 10 years to conduct the first burial at the site.
The map below shows a rough approximation of the Mountain Park location based on planning documents. If the map below does not display properly, please click here to view.
The number of potential burial sites at the property was not mentioned in the county agenda documents nor the supervisors’ nearly hour-long discussion Tuesday.
It also was unclear how long it would take to build a veterans cemetery at Mountain Park, and how it would be paid for, in comparison with a previously-designated site at the former El Toro base.
For the El Toro property, known as the ARDA site, Irvine officials recently said more than than $275 million in city-controlled funds related to the former El Toro base were potentially available to cover the estimated $91 million in costs for the first phase of cemetery development at the former base.
The map below shows rough approximations of the Irvine locations based on planning documents. If the map below does not display properly, please click here to view. The ARDA site is shown in orange and the potential alternate site located on the golf course property in grey.
The Mountain Park property would be significantly more costly than the El Toro site, according to county officials, and the only identified funding source Tuesday was an estimated $8 million to $10 million in cemetery district reserves.
Spitzer, who led the Mountain Park discussions, and Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has supported Spitzer in recent months, said the supervisors’ action simply moves the ball forward on a veterans cemetery, and that it’s completely separate from what ends up happening at El Toro.
“We need to preserve the history and the memory of our veterans and the sacrifice they made…This is a county that’s rich in its veterans’ history,” Spitzer said, adding the supervisors move creates options for a veterans cemetery at the Mountain Park property.
Referring to the El Toro site, Spitzer said: “If that venue or avenue fails, the question is: Will there be an alternative opportunity in Orange County? And today, if the City of Irvine cannot deliver a cemetery…in a reasonable period of time, this [Mountain Park] option leaves the Board of Supervisors in the driver’s seat to help facilitate and make that dream come true.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, emphasizing she wants to see a veterans cemetery actually be built, said her colleagues were creating cover to abandon efforts to create a veterans cemetery at the former El Toro base, so Five Point Communities – the developer of other former El Toro properties and the largest campaign donor to the Irvine City Council – can buy the land and turn it into a hotel and homes.
“If the county moves forward with regard to the Mountain Park site, there could potentially be a giveaway of something worth hundreds of millions of dollars benefitting the City of Irvine and the developer [Five Point],” Bartlett said.
“The ARDA site, where [Five Point] has a first right of [purchase], that’s a very valuable property. It could be developed with hotels and residences and such, and there’s hundreds of millions of dollars that benefit both the city and a developer within the city of Irvine,” Bartlett said.
Spitzer said the Mountain Park transfer doesn’t get in the way of Irvine’s decision on whether to use the El Toro base for a veterans cemetery.
“This isn’t a way of stopping anything. It doesn’t stop Irvine – the city, any of its partners, from planning a veterans cemetery in any way whatsoever,” said Spitzer, who departs his supervisor post on Jan. 7 to take office as district attorney.
Efforts apparently have stalled to create a veterans cemetery at the previously-designated ARDA site at the former El Toro base.
A majority of Irvine City Council members received major financial support from Five Point in their election campaigns. Should Irvine sell the ARDA land, a city agreement gives Five Point the first right to buy it, and the city has agreed to allow up to two hotels and 250 homes there.
Five Point spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing a June ballot measure in Irvine to open up the ARDA site to private development, by switching it with another site, known as Strawberry Fields, closer to the 5 freeway, for development as a veterans cemetery. Irvine voters rejected the property swap measure, 63 percent to 37 percent.
There also were questions at Tuesday’s meeting about how feasible the Anaheim site is in comparison with the El Toro site, which is now part of an area being developed into the Orange County Great Park, given reportedly higher costs for converting the steeper Anaheim land into a cemetery and a lack of public information about how the higher costs would be covered.
Bartlett said terrain issues at the Mountain Park property make it “substantially more costly” to develop into a cemetery than the $91 million Irvine estimates for the El Toro site.
Irvine city officials estimate an alternate veterans cemetery site at the former El Toro base, known as the “Golf Course” property, would cost $59 million to develop into a veterans cemetery.
Bartlett asked the other county supervisors to allow the release of a county staff memo analyzing the costs of creating a cemetery at the Mountain Park property. The other supervisors declined to do so.
Regarding the staff analysis of the Mountain Park cost, Spitzer wondered aloud, “What was the motivation, and what does it mean?”
“To put a price tag in an equation of other land deals,” Spitzer said, “with the price that the veterans paid to get ripped as 18 year-olds out of their home towns, and to go across overseas to fight in a foreign nation…And then to come back and be spat on and not get their ticker-tape parades, and [to] have to deal with the hatred of a generation of young people who at that time didn’t have much respect for their country – who would rather, I guess, be in flip-flops and do acid trips, you know, at Woodstock.”
Bartlett said she fully supports a veterans cemetery, but that the Mountain Park action lets others “off the hook.”
The county received the 283-acre Mountain Park property from The Irvine Company as part of the company’s larger gift of 2,500 acres in 2014, and the supervisors’ action Tuesday transfers it to the cemetery district at no cost.
At the end of the discussion, all five supervisors, including Bartlett, voted to transfer the Mountain Park property to the cemetery district, a public agency that builds and manages burial grounds in OC.
Voice of OC staff writer Spencer Custodio contributed to this story.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.