The Southern California Veterans Cemetery is still without a site in Irvine after the City Council delayed a vote to July although developer FivePoint Holdings pledged $28 million for a site, while the California Senate Veterans Affairs Committee moved ahead with a bill designating the original hangar site. 

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who spearheaded efforts to get a veterans cemetery in Orange County, didn’t budge on a request Tuesday when Senate committee members asked her to include a would-be golf course Irvine is studying as a potential site for the veterans cemetery, in her legislation designating a site for the state-run cemetery

“I’m happy to sit down and talk, but these last minute types of maneuvers don’t make it where you feel like that’s what they really want to do. Because there was plenty of time to talk. But that doesn’t mean that I will refuse (to consider amending the bill),” Quirk-Silva said in a Tuesday phone interview.  

Quirk-Silva’s bill passed 5-0 at the end of Tuesday’s committee hearing and went to the state Senate Appropriations Committee.  

Irvine Mayor Christina Shea and Five Point CEO Emile Haddad sent a letter Friday to committee chairman Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), committing FivePoint to spending $28 million on the golf course site for construction of the cemetery. 

Quirk-Silva’s bill was introduced in February. 

The cemetery was originally slated to be built near the heart of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine, just outside the Great Park. The site still has portions of taxiways and runways, barracks, a flight control tower and some jet engine testing buildings on it. The golf course site was also the part of the air station and is also near the Great Park. Quirk-Silva’s bill is looking to reaffirm the original site.

Irvine owns both sites and the golf 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 hasn’t accepted burials for years because it’s been filled. 

According to estimates from the California Department of Veterans Affairs, there are roughly 96,000 veterans living in Orange County. 

“Since late last year, the discussion has centered around the elimination of a planned golf course at the Great Park which was scheduled to be built by FivePoint for the benefit of the City of Irvine at the cost of $18 million,” reads the letter sent to Archuleta. “This [proposal] … will eliminate the golf course and allocate the budget from that use to the construction of the Veterans Cemetery in the golf course location. FivePoint has let the City of Irvine know they are willing to contribute an additional $10 million in the effort.” 

Irvine Councilwoman Melissa Fox attempted to mirror Quirk-Silva’s bill and name the 125-acre hangar site as the future home of the veterans cemetery at Tuesday’s Council meeting, but the item was continued until July. 

“We will be finding a date in July for that hearing and it will be a comprehensive hearing of both of the two cemetery projects that have been in review by the planning commission, the transportation commission and the finance commission,” Shea said at Tuesday’s Council meeting. 

Although the state Department of General Services’ study of the hangar site pegged the price tag at $77 million, an Irvine Finance Commission November staff report said CalVet notified Irvine the cost increased to nearly $91 million last year. 

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. But that estimate is from the city and not from a CalVet review. 

According to Fox’s agenda letter, if the Council votes for her resolution, the deed for the hangar site would be transferred to the state, but with a timeframe on it. 

“This resolution will include a provision that if the State not complete Phase One of the veterans cemetery within five years, the land will revert to the City,” reads the agenda letter. 

Shea, in a Wednesday text message, said Fox lacked a staff report for her agenda item and wants both sites to be considered at the same meeting, with documents and studies.

“Melissa (Fox) has been pushing the [hangar] site only after we voted to review both sites as we directed the City commissions,” Shea said.

At Tuesday’s Senate committee hearing, a few hours before the Irvine Council meeting, some senators asked if Quirk-Silva would be willing to add language to her bill that also considers the golf course site. 

“Why don’t we designate both sites? The golf course site and the [hangar] site and let the City Council make choices a City Council is supposed to make. Because we’re not a City Council,” Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) asked, adding he’d like to see Irvine maintain local control over the cemetery site selection. 

Quirk-Silva told Roth she’s open to meeting with FivePoint representatives and Irvine Councilmembers, but wasn’t ready to amend the language in her bill. 

“We put this language forward months ago. There was many, many times the city, the developer and the veterans group could have called my office to discuss it,” Quirk-Silva said in the committee hearing. “So there’s a trust issue here.”

“But right now, this bill puts some of us in the position … of voting for the most expensive of two alternatives, as opposed to studying it and trying to determine if the $59 million solution (golf site)” works, Roth said. 

Shea, who was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Honolulu Wednesday, said in a text message Quirk-Silva is being counterproductive.

“Sharon Quirk-Silva is melting down because her narrow focus to land plan our Great Park and only [suggests] one site that is not getting anywhere close to enough funding,” Shea wrote. “She is harming our efforts to build a cemetery in the Great Park…”

Roth told the Senate committee he would still like to keep local control in mind. 

“I am clearly not happy with the presentation and the willingness of the author to address what I believe to be serious issues with respect to the bill,” Roth said. “Since I’m a local control guy, I’m not interested in interfering with the right or the entitlement of the City of Irvine to decide where that cemetery goes.”  

Sen. Jim Nielson (R-Tehama) said he’s never seen such a heated committee meeting. 

“I’ve dealt with these issues a long time. And I’ve been on this committee quite a few years. I’ve never seen the intensity and frustration on this committee ever, that we’ve seen here as this developed,” Nielson said. “That’s very unusual and I understand local forces at play.” 

He also said he was frustrated Quirk-Silva wasn’t contacted earlier about the golf course site. 

“It appears that the author was not extended proper courtesies … so color me irritated, but color me as a yes vote and I will stay engaged as the bill moves,” Nielson said.  

Quirk-Silva had Patrick Fuscoe, from Irvine-based Fuscoe Engineering company, with her at the committee meeting. Fuscoe earlier said that portions of taxiways and runways don’t have to be removed and could be used as part of the cemetery, along with other buildings like the flight control tower. He also suggested encapsulating potentially toxic areas of the hangar site, or adding dirt to the areas, as a cost-saving method. 

“The other issue is that a lot of the demolition costs and so forth are talking about removing concrete … another type of solution could be to not remove it and bring in dirt to put over the site. So these are ways to look at cost savings, they’re not 100 percent vetted, they’re just ways to look at costs,” Quirk-Silva said. 

Earlier in the hearing, Fuscoe told the committee, “I can tell you that $50 million is more than enough to do the cemetery at the [hangar] site.” 

“(Former Irvine Mayor) Larry Agran had his former consultant Pat Fuscoe defend his position for the [hangar site] at [the senate committee] hearing yesterday giving misinformation to the Senators,” Shea wrote in her text message.

Irvine’s Sacramento lobbyist, Jason Gonsalves and Irvine Director of Community Services Pete Carmichael were also at the meeting. Gonsalves said the golf course needed to be included in Quirk-Silva’s bill so CalVet could study the site. 

“What the city’s position is support with amendments,” Gonsalves told the committee. “So what we’re simply asking for is for the legislation, like they did with [the hangar site], to specify or allow the department to do the study (the site).”

In a Wednesday phone interview, Fox said the City Council has not voted to take a position on either site at the local level or at the state level.  

“That’s absolutely inappropriate and beyond their authority. We have not voted on this,” Fox said. “That is not the city’s position and that’s not appropriate.”  

Fox added, “If they were there to provide a recommendation that was not approved by the city council, that was inappropriate. If they were there to provide information, that was in their purview.” 

Shea’s text said Gonsalvez had directions to advocate for both sites because the Council voted last year to direct staff and the commissions to study both.

Fox also took an issue with Haddad’s signature on the letter which has Irvine’s city seal on it. 

“Emile Haddad and Christina Shea issued a letter with no (Council) approval at all,” Fox said. “How can he do that?  We haven’t authorized him to do that.” 

Quirk-Silva brought up a similar concern during the committee hearing. 

“I’ve seen the letter the city sent, I think to the Senator (Archuleta), but not to me. I think it’s highly irregular … the city, along with the developer, would sign a letter together. I was on Fullerton Council for eight years,” Quirk-Silva told the committee. “You have a city and a developer lobbying together on a city letterhead.” 

But Shea said Haddad is a community partner on the Great Park projects and didn’t find his signature on the letter objectionable.

“No, he is our community funding partner at the Great Park for the Golf Course site,” Shea texted.

There was also a discrepancy on how many buildings currently sit on the hangar site. 

Carmichael said there are 77 buildings on the hangar site, while Fuscoe said there are 25 buildings. 

“I want a full consideration of both sites. Everybody’s taking some personal baggage into each site. The first question has to be which site is possible and from what I heard from legislators, they said they will not consider a site other than the [hangar] site,” Fox said.  

Fox said she put the hangar site item on the agenda due to a lack of progress. 

“I reached out multiple times to Councilmembers and to FivePoint to get something moving in the city … and I was not successful, so therefore I put it on the agenda,” she said. 

Quirk-Silva and Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) managed to secure $20 million for the cemetery in the upcoming budget, but it still hasn’t been signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as of Wednesday afternoon. There’s also about $4.5 million existing state funds for construction of the veterans cemetery. 

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 in 2017, which was ultimately killed by Irvine voters last year. 

FivePoint proposed trading strawberry fields by the 5 and 405 freeway interchange for the hangar site, along with $10 million for cemetery construction at the strawberry fields. 

Haddad, in an interview with Voice of OC leading up to the June 2018 election, said the land swap could adversely affect the neighborhood next to the hangar site, which FivePoint built. 

“So the location of the cemetery becomes very important … you have to respect that some people have a negative reaction of a cemetery being close to homes,” Haddad said at the time. “Who from a logical point of view thinks that a cemetery belongs next to a high school and a K through eight (elementary and middle school)?”

Since the June 2018 vote, Irvine decided to explore a “dual track” option and the City Council ordered its planning, finance and traffic commissions to study the golf and hangar sites.

Nick Berardino, a U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam War combat veteran and president of Veterans Alliance Orange County (VALOR), said he wants a site sooner than later. 

“Everybody has been working very hard throughout the weekend on this legislation and we, VALOR’s position, is the same today as it was two years ago. We want a cemetery for veterans. We’re not chess pieces, we’re veterans. So, whichever site can provide the most immediate path for construction is the site we support,” Berardino said Monday.  

Berardino is also a retired president of the Orange County Employees Association. 

“VALOR is extraordinarily appreciative of the work done by Assemblywoman Quirk-Silva and Senator Umberg,” Berardino said. 

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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