The future of the proposed veterans cemetery in Irvine remains unclear after the some state Legislators are set on building it at the heart of the old Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, while Irvine was looking to build it on a proposed golf course site. Both sites lack complete funding.

Veterans have for years been pushing for a cemetery somewhere on land that was formerly the old El Toro base and most recently a proposed land swap between the original site — which still has hangars, taxiways and barracks — and a strawberry field by the 5 and 405 freeways interchange was shot down by city voters last June.

“We know that there’s interest from the mayor and possibly other councilmembers to look at the golf site, but our legislation specifically names the [hangar] site … After many conversations we have felt like unless we get a push, we can keep doing this – chasing land … we finally decided to draw the line,” Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva told Voice of OC in a telephone interview.   

But Mayor Christina Shea said the state is going to need to fully fund the hangar site before the city commits to anything.

“They need a total funding plan. They’re going to have to bring forward $92 million, the city will not put money toward the project,” Shea said Tuesday. “I really don’t know what the Legislators are doing up there, why they’re land planning our park, but if they can come up with $92 million, we obviously have a good place to start.”

Irvine owns both the sites and the golf course site was once within the El Toro air station.

Orange County has no veterans cemetery and the closest are in Riverside and San Diego counties. Although there’s one in Los Angeles, it’s not accepting any more burials because it’s been filled.

County Supervisors are also studying land by the 91 freeway and 241 toll road in Anaheim Hills to build a county-run cemetery there, featuring a spot for veterans. Supervisors clashed in December on the issue, arguing the move provided cover for Irvine to abandon the cemetery altogether.

Quirk-Silva is currently amending legislation establishing the state-run Southern California Veterans Cemetery, explicitly changing the location from the strawberry site back to the hangar site. The bill amendment cleared the Assembly May 24 and is heading to the State Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The estimated price tag for the hangar site is $77 million, according to a study conducted by the state Department of General Services in 2016 — but that estimate has increased since then. An Irvine Finance Commission November staff report said California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) increased the estimate in 2018 and the cost went up to nearly $91 million.

CalVet did not respond for comment.

The golf course site is estimated to cost nearly $59 million, according to the commission’s staff report, which breaks down funding estimates for both sites. 

Quirk-Silva said that she, along with Senator Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) have each requested $10 million in the upcoming budget, for a total of $30 million that could be granted to the cemetery.

She also expects a bit of a fight to get the cemetery built, she said.

“I truly believe, yes, there will be opposition, whether it’s the developer or neighbors, but we have opposition to homeless shelters or supportive housing,” Quirk-Silva said. “Yes, there’s five or six places that could be an opportunity, but we don’t want to be chasing this.”

According to Shea, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office hasn’t committed to fully funding the hangar site.

Newsom’s office hasn’t returned calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Shea criticized Quirk-Silva’s bill as a political move.

“It was a very aggressive political move, but I don’t think it was a very good fiduciary move,” Shea said. “I find it somewhat irresponsible that we’re not getting a much more detailed review of the two sites before they go and sign legislation to land plan on a jurisdiction they don’t have land planning jurisdiction over.”

Irvine Councilwoman Melissa Fox said if the state shoulders the construction cost of the hangar site, there shouldn’t be any opposition from Councilmembers.

“The only obstacle to the [hangar] site, by anyone on the Council, myself included, and residents, is the cost of the clean up. And if the State wants to pay for that, there should be no opposition to the [site]. And that land does have to be cleaned up anyway … that’s the only problem with [hangar site], we thought it would cost too much,” Fox said Tuesday.

She also said it’s time for Councilmembers and staff to begin lobbying Newsom for full funding of the hangar site construction.

“Irvine doesn’t have the ability to build the cemetery on its own, so we need to support the decision of the state and get to building a cemetery right away,” Fox said.

Quirk-Silva said if the state grants the $30 million requested from her, Umberg and Daly, then some initial work can start on the site.

“We know that it costs more than $30 million, but you can start the first phase,” she said. “We already have $4.5 million in an account for the veterans cemetery from the last funding (cycle) which was related to the strawberry site.”

Progress on the cemetery froze until the land swap proposal was offered by developer Five Point Holdings in early 2017, which kicked off a battle between the Irvine City Council, residents, veterans and community groups that lasted until the June 2018 primary elections.

Quirk-Silva originally secured the hangar site through state legislation nearly five years ago so CalVet could begin conducting studies and planning for construction. The agency will eventually manage the cemetery once it’s built.

But the 2016 study found numerous animals, like a burrowing owl, living on the site would have to be relocated before construction could begin. It also found hazardous material that needs to be cleaned up.

The hangar site’s estimated price tag and an unclear funding situation put the cemetery on hold for years until Five Point offered the land swap, which was ultimately killed by Irvine voters.

Since the June 2018 vote, Irvine decided to explore a “dual track” option and the City Council ordered its various commissions and committees to begin finance, traffic, planning and a litany of other studies on both sites.

“I think the residents support a cemetery and residents support a cemetery on the former MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) El Toro base and I think you have as many opinions on where that should be as you have residents in Irvine,” Fox said.

Shea said she got over 80 emails from residents living near the hangar site.

“People are really angry what they’re doing with this bill,” Shea said.

Quirk-Silva said she should have an update on funding and her bill soon.

“We’ll be able to get some kind of information I think by the end of the month if we were successful in the budget getting some funds, if it gets through the Senate and gets to the Governor’s office,” Quirk-Silva said.

She said the bill is “drawing the line” on the site selection, adding shopping around for a different site within the El Toro air station is further delaying the veterans cemetery.  

“There’s got to be an end here, either the city council says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ … and that’s kind of where we’re at.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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