Irvine voters could decide where to build the veterans cemetery after a voter initiative was approved by the Orange County Registrar of Voters late Tuesday, marking another chapter in a years-long battle.
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If passed, the initiative would block any construction of a cemetery in the Great Park or in many of the areas around it, and would rezone a piece of land adjacent to the park known as the hangar site to become the cemetery.
Veterans have fought for years to get a cemetery in Irvine at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, but efforts have been stalled through a previous voter initiative and funding problems.
Currently, the cemetery is set to be built in the northeast portion of the Great Park on land once slated for a golf course.
Now, the initiative would aim to build the cemetery near the heart of the old air station that still has hangars, barracks, jet engine-testing buildings and taxiways on it.
Both sites were once part of the air station.
A 2018 initiative killed land swap efforts that would have traded the hangar site for strawberry fields, owned by developer FivePoint Holdings, near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange. That site was also part of the air station.
After that initiative, the City Council voted to study the golf course and the hangar sites. Councilmembers ultimately chose the golf site because it doesn’t require the clean up the hangar site needs.
FivePoint also pledged $28 million to help fund the cemetery at the golf course site. If the cemetery is moved to the hangar site, FivePoint would be allowed to use the site for its original purpose and construct a golf course.
The initiative will now go to the Irvine City Council during their next meeting on May 12, with the opportunity to approve the initiative as written, but likely to be scheduled for the Nov. 3 election.
Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor and a proponent of the initiative, said he was “very pleased” to see the item move to the November ballot. Agran also helped the 2018 anti-land swap efforts.
“I’m sad that it’s necessary to once again demonstrate the will of the people of the city of Irvine to establish the veterans memorial park and cemetery, state built and state operated, at the (hangar) site,” Agran said. “Irvine veterans are overwhelmingly in support for the original (hangar) site.”
OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley confirmed, through email, his office verified the results of the initiative, and said that the necessary signatures 12,888 were verified.
County elections officials had to process over 17,000 signatures submitted by the Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery committee by April 28, submitting the verification to the city clerk on Tuesday.
Ed Pope, the Great Park Veterans Cemetery committee chair, said in a news release that “Irvine citizens are finally gaining the upper hand.”
Agran also expressed concerns that the city council could move to place another measure on the ballot opposing the original initiative, which would halt any rezoning of the hangar site if passed in November.
“They can put a competing measure on the November 3rd ballot, apparently in an attempt to confuse the people of the city, and to try and defeat the ARDA site initiative,” Agran said. ““We had to do it the hard way, hundreds of citizens gathering signatures one at a time.”
Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, an opponent of the hangar site, said she plans on introducing a separate initiative to build the veterans cemetery at the golf course during the May 12 council meeting.
“I’m going to suggest we put the proposal for the golf course site that is much more beneficial and let the voters decide side by side,” Shea said. “(The hangar site) is too expensive and will never get built…and most of the Orange County veterans support the golf course.”
US Marine Vietnam War combat veteran Nick Berardino, president of Veterans Alliance Orange County, said the attempt to relocate the cemetery is the “biggest fraud perpetrated on veterans in Orange County history.”
“It has been clear that the [hangar] site will not have the funding to move forward,” Berardino said in a phone interview. “Once again, veterans are chess pieces in yet another self-serving political battle by (Agran) who destroyed any hope of having a Great Park that would serve the constituencies of Orange County.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the number of verified signatures as over 17,000. While county election officials verified over 17,000 signatures, they stopped counting once they reached the required limit. The excess 4,000 signatures were disqualified and did not count towards the initiative. We regret the error.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.