Veterans in Orange County could be buried in an Irvine cemetery on a former planned golf course site within the Great Park, the Irvine City Council decided Tuesday night.

“I’m looking for tonight where we set a goal of doing what’s right and designating a veterans cemetery,” Councilwoman Farrah Khan said. “It’s going to take an attitude of compromise.” 

The Council voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Melissa Fox dissenting. 

“While it should be time to transfer the [original site] to the state, rather than designate some other site as a tactic of diversion as has been stated, it’s clear that is not going to be happening this evening,” Fox said. 

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) spearheaded 2014 efforts to secure a site near the heart of the old Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, but progress on the cemetery froze until a land swap was proposed by developer FivePoint Holdings in early 2017. The move kicked off a battle between the Irvine City Council, residents, veterans and community groups that lasted until the June 2018 primary elections when Irvine voters shot down the proposal. 

The Council rescinded its original site designation during the 2017 land swap proposal to consider trading the original site for FivePoint-owned strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange. The original site still has hangars, barracks, jet engine-testing buildings and portions of taxiways and runways on it and was opposed by FivePoint Holdings. 

Khan tried to get the hangar site when she moved to offset a portion to serve as buffer  near the homes and school portion surrounding the site, but failed to get a second.

Since February, Quirk-Silva has been pushing a bill through the Legislature naming the hangar site as the future home of the veterans cemetery. She successfully pushed a bill in 2017 that named the strawberry fields as the future veterans cemetery. 

Shortly after the June 2018 vote that killed the land swap, the Council directed its planning, transportation and finance commissions to study both the hangar site and original sites. All three commissions recommended the golf course to the City Council. 

But a dispute emerged early in the meeting about the exact boundaries of the golf course site after it was discovered the finance commission had looked at a different area of the golf course than the other commissions. 

“It’s been very, very concerning to me about what the boundaries of the golf site are,” Fox said, adding the commissions studied two different locations in the golf course.  

City Manager John Russo said, “It is different, but it’s the same analysis” because the soil tested clean for hazardous substances and structures and other infrastructure have already been removed. 

Earlier in the meeting, Russo noted difficulties faced by the hangar site that could jeopardize federal Veterans Administration grant funding, including a road that runs through the site that would split the cemetery.

When Quirk-Silva’s  bill got to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Mayor Christina Shea and FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad sent a letter June 20 committing $28 million from the developer to build the cemetery on the golf course site — $18 million was slated for the golf course and the developer will chip in an additional $10 million. The letter was sent to state Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), chairman of the committee. 

FivePoint is the developer that built the homes surrounding the hangar site, just outside the Great Park. The developer also built most of the soccer fields and the new sports stadium in the park. 

The assemblywoman’s bill made it out of the Veterans Affairs committee and is currently on hold in the Senate Appropriations committee from a unanimous July 8 vote. It’s expected to be heard by the committee in August. She, along with Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), have also been able to secure $20 million in a state budget for a veterans cemetery. There was already $4.5 million in the cemetery fund leftover from the potential land swap, for a total of $24.5 million that can be used for either site.

The estimated cost of the hangar site is $95 million, according to city staff during the meeting. There’s also hazardous material that needs to be removed or isolated on the land. 

City staff, using the same methodology the state Department of General Services studied the hangar site in 2016 with, estimated the cost of the golf course at roughly $58 million. 

Umberg, who’s been backing Quirk-Silva’s bill as it makes it way through the Legislature, also noted the two different locations within the golf course during Tuesday’s meeting. 

“Then there was another proposal I’ll call that golf course site number one and that golf course site was in existence up into the senate appropriations committee,” Umberg, a retired U.S. Army colonel, said. “Golf course site number 2 is very, very different from golf course site number one.”

Not long after, Umberg went over the three minutes for public comment. 

“Senator, your time’s up. Can you please finish?” Shea said. 

Umberg said, while also asking for more time, “There’ll be no cemetery approval without either the council’s approval or the citizen’s approval.” 

Shea stopped him and said, “We’re going to follow the three-minute rule whether you like it or not.” 

Residents who favor the hangar site began to yell out, which resulted in a 10-minute break ordered by Shea in an effort to regain control of the meeting. 

But almost immediately as Shea called for a break, Umberg turned around to face the crowd in stadium seating in Council Chambers and began speaking directly to the audience about his position on the cemetery.  

“Do we have a sergeant-in-arms here?” Shea asked nearby police officers. 

Umberg eventually sat down and the meeting resumed a few minutes after.  

Many veterans who spoke at the meeting where either connected to the Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR) or the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation. 

Park foundation chairman Bill Cook, who helped Quirk-Silva’s legislative efforts in 2014, said it would irresponsible to spend the additional money on the hangar site. 

“We have the opportunity before us here with a funded cemetery on the golf course,” Cook told the Council, adding the extra money needed for the hangar site can help with other veteran programs. 

“There’s absolutely no way we can push the [hangar] site,” said Cook, a U.S. Marine veteran from the Vietnam War. 

“Don’t kick the can down the road any further. Let’s get this going.” 

In an effort to subdue concerns that the city is going to sell the hangar site to FivePoint or the land is going to make the developer millions of dollars, the City Council directed its planning commission to study removing the 250 houses and two hotels entitled on that land. 

“Number one, I do not work for FivePoint Holdings,” Councilman Mike Carroll said. “I will be moving at the end of tonight to rezone the [hangar] site.”

OC currently 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. The new state-run Irvine cemetery will be known as the Southern California Veterans Cemetery. 

Former Mayor Larry Agran said, during public comment, that residents aren’t being respected. 

“How much more do we citizens have to do to get the City Council to respect the will of the people?” he asked. 

Agran, along with Irvine resident and U.S. Army Veteran Ed Pope, launched the successful petition to put the land swap question to Irvine voters on the June 2018 ballot.

Many residents who spoke Tuesday said their June 2018 votes not only cancelled the land swap, but reverted the site back to the original site. 

But a city attorney Jeff Melching found that wasn’t the case in an analysis attached to Tuesday’s agenda. The vote by Irvine residents was solely about authorizing the land swap or not. 

Shortly after some yelling between the audience and the council, U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran Bill Sandlin told the audience respect needs to be given to everybody.

“Have some respect for us and respect for everybody in here,” Sandlin said. 

Mission Viejo Mayor Greg Raths, a retired U.S. Marine colonel, said it’s long past time to give the veterans a final home. 

“We’re dying at a pretty good rate each year,” the retired Marine fighter pilot 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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