CA State Legislature Could Soon Back Planned Golf Course Site in Irvine for OC Veterans Cemetery

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Veterans before a 21-gun salute at a site dedication ceremony at the now defunct strawberry field site. Oct. 27, 2017.

Orange County veterans could be buried at a once-planned golf course in Irvine after Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) announced Tuesday she would amend her current legislation to focus on the site. 

Since March, Quirk-Silva had looked to build the veterans cemetery near the heart of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which still has portions of taxiways, hangars and runways on it. But the Irvine City Council chose a proposed golf course July 23. Both sites are city-owned and were part of El Toro.

Quirk-Silva didn’t respond for comment.   

Some residents have voiced concerns over developer FivePoint Holdings buying and developing the hangar site.  

But FivePoint has no plans for the hangar site, said CEO Emile Haddad in a Tuesday phone interview. 

“Our position on the [hangar site] is very simple. We never had plans, we had a right we kept,” Haddad said, referring to a 2009 contractual agreement when FivePoint originally gave the 125-acre hangar site to Irvine. 

“We asked that if the city decides to develop the site and sell the property to a developer, that we have the first right to buy it back at market rate,” Haddad said. “That’s the only thing we have with the [hangar site], the only right that’s contractual.” 

The Irvine City Council is in the process of removing development entitlements of 250 homes and a hotel on the hangar site. 

The battle for a veterans cemetery in OC has been happening since at least 2014, when Quirk-Silva first proposed the hangar site outside the Great Park. 

Progress on the cemetery froze until a 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 Irvine voters killed the proposal at the June 2018 primary election.

In Tuesday’s news release, Quirk-Silva said her bill “will reflect the views of Irvine city leaders, legislators, as well as most every veteran organization in the region.”

The City Council voted 4-1 July 23 to build the cemetery on the golf site, which sits south of the hangar site. Councilwoman Melissa Fox dissented. 

But leading up to the Council vote, disputes between Quirk-Silva and Irvine Mayor Christina Shea surfaced. The Assemblywoman said it was time to build a cemetery at the hangar site, while Shea accused Quirk-Silva of overstepping her legislative role and land planning for Irvine. 

There were also battles at the State Legislature over which site Quirk-Silva should include in her bill. 

At a June 25 California Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, some Senators wanted Quirk-Silva to amend her bill and include the golf course site. 

She refused and said Irvine officials had failed to meet with her on the issue of a potential new site for a cemetery. 

Irvine representatives told the committee they only wanted Quirk-Silva to amend her bill to include the golf course site. 

Quirk-Silva’s move at the committee hearing led to backlash from Shea, who said the city tried numerous times to meet with the Assemblywoman about changing sites. 

Quirk-Silva disputed those claims. 

Four days before the Assemblywoman’s bill was heard by the state VA committee, Shea and Haddad sent a letter to committee chairman Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera) June 21, committing FivePoint to spending $28 million on the golf course site for construction of the cemetery. A portion of it, $18 million, was originally slated to develop an 18-hole golf course and Haddad committed another $10 million for the cemetery at the golf course site. 

Quirk-Silva’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 late August.

Quirk-Silva, along with Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), secured $20 million in the state budget for a veterans cemetery. There was already $4.5 million in the cemetery fund leftover from the failed 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 documents. 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, estimated the cost of the golf course at roughly $58 million. 

“The funds for a cemetery are there, the land is there, we have legislative, veteran and local support. The time to build this cemetery is now,” Quirk-Silva said in Tuesday’s news release. 

Nick Berardino, a U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam War combat veteran and president of Veterans Alliance Orange County (VALOR), also said the golf site can be built right away. 

“That’s the site that we have all agreed that it can be built, virtually almost immediately. So the neighbors around there, they like the golf course site much better because its farther away from their homes. It’s right in the middle of the Great Park,” Berardino said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

Meanwhile, former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran launched a ballot initiative Aug. 12 in hopes of designating the hangar site as the permanent home of the veterans cemetery. He did not respond for comment. 

Agran, along with resident Ed Pope, successfully led the referendum on the June 2018 ballot, which killed the original land swap proposal. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story used the term “referendum initiative” regarding the veterans cemetery instead of “ballot initiative.” We regret the error.

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