The Irvine City Council could pick a home for Orange County’s first veterans cemetery Tuesday, potentially ending a battle between Councilmembers and state Legislators over where the state-run cemetery will be built.
One site is in the heart of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and still has taxiways, barracks, jet engine testing buildings and various other buildings on it that may need to be demolished. But that site is opposed by one of the city’s major developers, FivePoint Holdings. The hangar site sits just outside the boundaries of the Great Park.
Another site, a planned golf course within the Great Park, was also part of the El Toro air station. It doesn’t have the buildings or other structures that could require demolition and, according to city staff reports, doesn’t require hazardous material clean up.
According to the staff report for Tuesday’s agenda, the golf course site costs is estimated at $58 million, while the hangar site is estimated at $91 million.
Since February, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who spearheaded 2014 legislative efforts to establish a veterans cemetery in OC, has been pushing a bill through the Legislature naming the hangar site as the future home of the veterans cemetery.
When Quirk-Silva got her original bill passed in October 2014, there was unanimous City Council consensus on the hangar site.
Progress on the cemetery froze until the land swap proposal was offered by developer FivePoint 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. The Council rescinded its hangar site designation during the 2017 land swap proposal.
Since then, Irvine has been looking at the would-be golf course, along with studying the hangar site for nearly a year. During that time, Quirk-Silva’s been able to secure $24.5 million in state funding for the cemetery.
The golf course site was Mayor Christina Shea’s idea after Irvine voters, in June 2018, shot down a land swap that would’ve traded the hangar site for strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange with developer FivePoint Holdings.
Shortly after the June 2018 vote against the land swap, Shea said she found an alternative.
“I looked at the Great Park map and I thought this is the best plan. I called our staff the next day. They said it could actually be doable because it’s already been through an environmental review,” Shea said.
In June, developer FivePoint CEO, Emile Haddad, along with Shea sent a letter to state Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera) committing $28 million from FivePoint for the veterans cemetery at the golf course site.
Nick Berardino, president of Veterans Alliance Orange County (VALOR), sent an email to state Legislators, including Quirk-Silva, and the Irvine City Council that shows veteran support for the golf course site.
Berardino, a Vietnam War combat Marine, is also the former General Manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
“The board (VALOR) believes that it is in the best interest of the veteran community to support building the cemetery at the golf course site utilizing a ‘Public/Private’ partnership with Fivepoint (Holdings),” Berardino wrote.
“We are painfully aware that there are those who would seek to challenge and fight against the golf course site,” Berardino wrote.
VALOR met with various legislators, Irvine Councilmembers and representatives from the state and federal Departments of Veteran Affairs before deciding on a site, according to Berardino’s letter.
Irvine has been studying both sites and the city’s planning and transportation and finance commissions have all recommended the golf course site to the City Council.
Shea said, should the Council decide on the golf course site, that she’s going to bring an item forward that would kill all the housing entitlements on the hangar site.
“My proposal has been to actually move the golf course site to the [hangar] site and build a commercial center … and just have a less intense use,” Shea said.
A fight between Irvine officials and Quirk-Silva has emerged over the past two months over who spoke to whom about the cemetery site.
The Assemblywoman previously told Voice of OC that Irvine officials and FivePoint failed to meet with her over the issue. She also said the same to the Senate Veterans Affairs committee when her bill was being reviewed.
But Irvine records obtained by Voice of OC through a records request show City Manager John Russo tried have a meeting with Quirk-Silva on two separate Sacramento visits. He did have a meeting with her chief of staff in February, according to a finalized itinerary. He had a similar meeting scheduled in April, but it’s unclear if the meeting happened.
During Russo’s April visit to Sacramento, he texted Quirk-Silva two days before his April 10 scheduled meeting with her, records show.
He was scheduled to meet with her 4 p.m. April 10, but Quirk-Silva wanted to meet sooner, according to the text messages.
“Need to leave by 3:40-sorry,” reads an April 10 text from Quirk-Silva.
Russo responded, “That’s fine. When do you want to follow up on this meeting?”
Nine days later, Quirk-Silva texted, “Is there anyway to meet with you and the Mayor regarding the Veterans Cemetery, next Friday at 2:30pm. I could go to Irvine?”
Russo said he would be out of town during that time, but they could meet at a later date. It’s uncertain if a meeting took place or not, according to records provided by Irvine.
Quirk-Silva didn’t respond to questions Monday, but previous texts to Voice of OC said the April meeting never happened.
She did say the city’s lobbyist stopped by her Sacramento office in mid-June, but nothing formalized and there was no “council consensus” on a site.
Meanwhile, Quirk-Silva’s bill has been put on hold at the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“They’re waiting to hear how we vote on Tuesday,” Shea said.
The Irvine City Council meeting starts at 5 p.m. at city hall.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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