Gov. Gavin Newsom Wednesday signed a bill to build a veterans cemetery on one of two sites in Irvine, according to Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who authored the bill.
The site could ultimately be determined by Irvine voters after former Mayor Larry Agran filed paperwork for a ballot initiative Aug 12. The bill allows for the state-run cemetery to be built at a site near the heart of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which still has hangars and portions of taxiways on it, or at a planned golf course inside the Great Park. Both sites were part El Toro.
“I still feel — very strongly — the golf site makes the best sense financially, as far as getting this moving and actually using it as a veterans cemetery,” Quirk-Silva said.
“If Larry Agran gets his signatures, the voters will have a choice in that. So it puts us back in a place where there is an option if the voters end up choosing the [hangar] site, but there is also a focus on the golf course site for us. It leaves both of them on the table,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Agran said he hopes to put the question before Irvine voters to ultimately decide.
“It’s basically left up to Irvine voters at this time. And that’s what the initiative is about,” Agran said in a phone call Wednesday.
US Marine Corps Vietnam combat veteran Nick Berardino, president of Veterans Alliance Orange County, said the cemetery should be a done deal at the golf course.
“I think we have the property, we have it paid for, we have the location that was agreed upon by the school. The only way that this won’t get built is the influence of those who have anti-veteran sentiments. Because it is now done. Build it,” Berardino said in a phone call Wednesday.
Agran said there are hundreds of Irvine veterans who want the cemetery at the hangar site.
“First of all, I’m not even going to dignify that kind of absurd statement with a response,” Agran said Wednesday. “I’ve been in the trenches and hundreds of veterans from across the city have been in the trenches since 2014, pushing for this veterans memorial park and cemetery at the [hangar] site.”
The Assemblywoman’s bill originally named the hangar site as the future home of the cemetery, but Quirk-Silva amended it to add a planned golf course within Irvine’s Great Park in August, shortly after the Irvine City Council’s July 23 vote designating the golf course site.
“It was a lot of pushing and pulling, but we feel pretty excited — the council has already voted on it — but we’re leaving it to the voters of Irvine,” Quirk-Silva said, referring to a ballot initiative effort in Irvine.
Throughout June and July, Irvine officials and Quirk-Silva fought over who spoke with whom about the cemetery.
But the Assemblywoman said a tour of both sites since then and talks with Irvine officials eased the tensions.
“We’ve been in communication and we resolved our issues,” Quirk-Silva said, adding Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) — a coauthor of the cemetery bill — and Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine) also toured the site.
“All of the Orange County delegation was invited, some of them had their representatives there,” she said.
Quirk-Silva spearheaded 2014 efforts to secure the hangar site, 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.
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.
While the Irvine commissions were studying the two sites, Quirk-Silva since March was pushing her bill to designate the hangar site and amended the legislation to include the golf course site in August.
Many Irvine residents fear the Irvine City Council’s vote designating the golf course site would mean the hangar site would turn into a massive development for FivePoint. But the City Council directed its planning commission to study removing the 250 houses and two hotels entitled on that land.
FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad told Voice of OC Aug. 20 that he has no plans for the hangar site.
“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 estimated cost of the hangar site is $95 million, according to city documents. There’s also hazardous material that needs to be removed.
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.
Haddad committed $28 million to help build the cemetery at the planned 18-hole golf course site. A portion of it, $18 millon, was originally slated to develop the golf course and FivePoint committed another $10 million on top of it.
Separately, Quirk-Silva, along with Umberg, 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.
Irvine hasn’t finalized Agran’s ballot initiative paperwork yet, but he said he’ll need about 13,000 valid signatures from registered voters in the city and has about six months to gather the signatures once everything is final.