The proposed Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Irvine was granted $20 million in state funding when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the 2019-2020 budget, but it’s still uncertain where the cemetery will be built. 

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), along with state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) originally asked for $30 million in the state budget in May, but only $20 million was in the budget by Thursday, June 27, when Newsom signed it. 

But there’s an ongoing dispute between some Irvine Councilmembers and Quirk-Silva over where the cemetery should go. 

“My hope is that we take a little break over this Fourth of July and maybe when I get back into the district for the summer recess, we can get some face to face meetings and come to some type of resolution (with Irvine),” said Quirk-Silva in a June 28 phone interview. 

Quirk-Silva, who spearheaded 2014 efforts to get a state-run veterans cemetery in Irvine, has been pushing a bill expressly designating the original site near the heart of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station as the future home of Orange County’s first veterans cemetery. The site still has hangars, barracks, jet engine testing buildings and portions of taxiways and runways on it. 

But Irvine has been looking at a would-be golf course as a potential site for the cemetery, along with studying the hangar site for nearly a year.

The map below shows rough approximations of the Irvine locations based on planning documents. If the map below does not display properly, please click here to view. The original ARDA site is shown in orange and the golf course property in grey.

Veterans have been fighting for a cemetery for years and the closest ones 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. 

Although the state Department of General Services’ study of the hangar site originally pegged the price tag at $77 million in 2016, an Irvine Finance Commission November staff report said the California Department of Veterans Affairs (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. 

The new state budget brings the total state funding for the veterans cemetery to $24.5 million, including the $4.5 million leftover from last year. 

Progress on the veterans cemetery was stalled until a 2017 proposal from developer FivePoint Holdings that offered to trade roughly 125-acres of strawberry fields near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange with the 125-acre hangar site. FivePoint also pledged $10 million for the strawberry field site. 

Irvine voters decided against the swap in June 2018.

Shortly after the election, the Irvine City Council voted to have its planning, transportation and finance commissions begin studying both sites to help the Council make a choice. 

Councilwoman Melissa Fox tried to mirror Quirk-Silva’s efforts by putting an item on the June 25 Council agenda expressly designating the hangar site as the future home of the cemetery. 

But the item was pushed back until the Council’s July meeting, when the City Council will discuss both sites and potentially designate one.

That same day, Quirk-Silva’s bill naming the hangar site passed through the state Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“The appropriations chair could just keep it out, but at this point, because there has been budget money put in, it’s probably not likely he would not put it out,” said Quirk-Siva, adding that Umberg has been speaking with Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who chairs the appropriations committee. 

Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, along with FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad, sent a letter to Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera) June 21, committing FivePoint to spending $28 million on the golf course site for construction of the cemetery. Archuleta chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee. 

Before making its way out of the veterans affairs committee, there was a battle over local control in the hearing.  

“The parties have yet to formally or officially identify one site,” Quirk-Silva told the committee Tuesday. “Sometimes it becomes necessary to press forward, move forward, to get to the point we want to.” 

“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 she has a trust issue with the golf course proposal because the $28 million pledge came less than a week before the committee hearing. 

“There was many many times the city, the developer and the veterans group could have called my office to discuss it … so there’s a trust issue here,” Quirk-Silva told Roth.

Quirk-Silva told Voice of OC Friday she’s open to negotiating a compromise with Irvine and FivePoint, but they haven’t tried to sit down with her. 

“Everything has been very irregular with this in the last moth. So I can’t tell you 100 percent it gets out (appropriations committee),” Quirk-Silva said. “Now if it got out exactly the way it is and there were no amendments, then I believe it would go to a vote on the floor of the Senate. Then, after that, if there were still no amendments, then it would go to the governor.” 

In a Wednesday text message, Shea said Irvine has tried for months to get Quirk-Silva to name both sites in her bill. 

“Sharon Quirk-silva is just completely fabricating her facts. The City of Irvine has been asking her for months to include the Golf Course site in her legislation,” Shea texted. “Our City Manager, our staff and lobbyist met with her and CalVet, the Governors staff months ago asking her to amend her bill. We have spoken to her staff multiple times over the past 5 months and she would not budge and allow both sites to be designated in her proposal.”

But Quirk-Silva said her chief of staff combed through emails and communications Friday and found nothing from Irvine requesting a meeting with her. 

“I don’t like these latest accusations, this rhetoric keeps this flying around. But I’m committed to getting it done,” she said.  

“To be honest, I’m losing patience.”  

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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