Santana: OC State Lawmakers Jump Back Into The Fight For a Veterans Cemetery

Jeff Antenore/Voice of OC

Governor Jerry Brown talked about supporting a veterans cemetery in Orange County at a Friday press conference in Irvine.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva is leading a bipartisan coalition of OC state lawmakers that want the state government to take over development of the veterans’ cemetery in Irvine.

Quirk Silva, along with four state assembly members and one state senator from Orange County, late last week sent a joint letter to Irvine City Council members calling on them to essentially give the state ownership over a site in Irvine at the former Marine Air Base at El Toro slated for a Orange County veterans’ cemetery.

“On March 11, 2014, the Irvine City Council by an unanimous vote designated the Amended and Restated Development Agreement (ARDA) Site at the Great Park “as the best possible site” for a Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery.

We ask that you continue to support this shared goal by conveying this particular property to the state,” wrote Quirk Silva in a letter co-signed by Democratic State Assembly members Tom Daly (69 AD) and Tom Umberg (34-SD) and Republicans Tyler Diep (72 AD), William Brough (73 AD) and Phillip Chen (55 –AD).

While council members long ago dedicated the 125-acre site near the heart of the old base for a veterans’ cemetery, the project has been mired and ultimately delayed, in the mud of local politics.

After local developers voiced concerns over the location of the cemetery, largely because of Feng Shui concerns from Asian real estate clients, a debate emerged amongst local politicians over how to re-locate the veterans’ site and accommodate all sides.

Not easy. Not even likely.

Local elections in 2018 were dominated by an intense battle over a proposal to swap the original site for a similarly-sized land tract near the interchange between the 405 and 5 freeways, called the Strawberry Fields.

Voters rejected that plan handily last summer.

Afterwards, another plan emerged to use a nearby golf course tract instead of the designated land (the ARDA site). Irvine planning commissioners recently endorsed this option on a 4-1 margin.

Meanwhile, county supervisors offered an option of their own this past summer, offering the potential of developing a county veterans cemetery – alongside a public civilian cemetery – on donated land from the Irvine Company, near the intersection of the 91 freeway and 241 toll road.

Unlike any Irvine project, the county option has the full backing of the dais that can authorize it, in this case the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Former Irvine Mayor Don Wagner – who just won a special election this month onto the board of supervisors – will likely soon impact that debate.

In Irvine, Wagner prevented former City Councilman Jeff Lalloway from offering a motion moving forward with the original ARDA site last summer – after the loss of the Strawberry Fields election – instead calling for traffic and environmental reviews on the original site with no date set for action.

A June 2016 study of the ARDA site conducted by the Los Angeles-based Owen Group for the California Department of General Services priced the first phase of development at $78 million, including nearly $40 million in demolition and cleanup costs.

The Owen report notes that more soil studies should be conducted on the ARDA site and if toxic soil were to be found, the cost to clean it up would increase the price dramatically. The report does not give an estimate on soil remediation, but does say if enough contamination is found, the site should be excavated eight to 10 feet in an effort to remove the contamination.

Quirk Silva years back did secure $5 million from the legislature toward the development of a veterans’ cemetery during a tough election campaign in 2014 that featured the support of then-Gov. Jerry Brown and a supermajority hanging in the balance.

To date, state leaders have largely stayed on the sidelines in Irvine’s longstanding debate about the location of the regional veterans cemetery.

That may have changed.

“History demonstrates that the State Legislature supports a Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery,” reads the state legislators’ March 21 letter.

“Previous legislation, supported by the City, AB 1453 (Quirk-Silva, Statutes of 2014) selected the ARDA Site and allocated $4.5 million to a Master Development Fund. This measure received unanimous and bipartisan support.”

The letter essentially calls on Irvine city council members to put up or shut up.

“Today, we are ready to work with State and Federal officials to secure funding for the Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery. We ask that you stand by your previous commitment to provide a resting place for California’s veterans at the ARDA site.”

There are some odd names missing from the state legislators’ letter – such as Republicans Steven Choi from Irvine or State Senators like John Moorlach or Pat Bates.

So it’s hard to know how deep the support for this proposal runs.

I reached out to Quirk Silva but mainly got a quote through an official spokesman.

“My colleagues and I felt that our bill needed a location and we wanted the City of Irvine’s Council to be aware that there is support for the original ARDA site,” said Quirk-Silva though her spokesman.

I also reached out this weekend to Nick Berardino, President of VALOR (Veterans Alliance of Orange County), who has been advocating for a veterans’ cemetery for years, for his take.

Berardino – an old veteran of many a legislative trench over the years – is, as always, following the money.

“We are excited that the legislature is poised to support the veterans cemetery and impressed that the Orange County delegation is able to secure the funding in this years budget.”