Irvine City Council Approves Voter Veterans Cemetery Initiative, Leaves Open Enforceability Questions

Irvine city council meeting on Dec. 10, 2019.

The Irvine City Council approved a site for the Orange County veterans cemetery, but questions over how the site will be funded and built are still up in the air. 

An organization called Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery put forward an initiative calling for the city to build the cemetery on a section of land near the heart of the old air station that still has hangars, barracks, and other remains of the installation on it. 

The initiative collected nearly 20,000 signatures to support moving the proposed cemetery to the new location. 

Election officials verified the results of the initiative late last month, counting all the signatures to verify that the initiative had reached the required 12,888 signatures to qualify for the city council’s consideration. 

According to Registrar of Voters Neal Kelly, Irvine officials paid $67,000 to have the signatures verified.

The council voted to approve the initiative in a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Christina Shea dissenting. With that approval, the voter initiative became an official city ordinance, and will not proceed to the November ballot. 

Veterans groups have been attempting to build a cemetery on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for years, but their efforts stalled after funding problems and a previous voter initiative blocked one of the proposed sites. 

Originally, the cemetery was currently slated for construction in the northeast portion of the Great Park, on land once set to become a golf course. 

Both sites were part of the air station.

However, a presentation by City Attorney Jeff Melching questioned if the initiative the council approved could be enforced. 

“Whether it’s adopted tonight or voted in by the electors in November, the initiative doesn’t bind the property as long as it’s in the hands of the city,” Melching said.

The initiative calls for the hangar site to be rezoned to allow only for the development of a veterans cemetery, and specifically outlines that the cemetery cannot be developed at the golf course site. 

Melching argued under the city’s municipal code that as long as property is owned by the city, zoning restrictions don’t apply. Both the hangar and golf course sites are owned by the city of Irvine.

Shea was openly critical of the initiative as she opened council discussion after Melching’s presentation. 

“I feel the public has been so misled for so long, and they’re misled again, here’s something else they signed, and in fact it doesn’t really come to anything. It’s just a fluff in the air.” Shea said before the vote. “So we could adopt it tonight, but at the end of the day, in two weeks, three weeks, a new council could come on and they could just decide to lease the property out.”

“The cemetery would never happen.” 

But after the council approved the initiative, Shea suggested that one of the councilmembers reach out to the initiative’s organizers to set up an official dedication at the hangar site. 

“We’re not just saying something, we’re going to stand behind our residents and make sure this (hangar) site is built for our veterans,” Shea said. “The issue is finally over, and it’s moving in a direction for our veterans to build that cemetery.” 

In a phone call after the meeting with Voice of OC, Shea said that while she was excited to see the hangar site approved, she was concerned about some of the hurdles it would face going forward. 

She suggested the dedication ceremony as a way to add more permanence to the initiative, and to start moving the process forward. 

“I’m pleased from the standpoint we’ve come to a resolution, but the initiative didn’t really allow the cemetery to be something that the city was subjected to,” Shea said. “We actually have residents in that community area that don’t want it there, we have the school districts in opposition to it, so I think we still have some hurdles to it.”

Shea also mentioned concerns about lobbying efforts to sway the vote on the initiative, but when asked to clarify further she declined to comment. 

Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor and proponent of the initiative, said he was “excited and exultant,” after the council’s vote in a phone interview with Voice of OC. 

“It’s been a long hard road, but the will of the people has finally prevailed,” Agran said. “It will be a pleasure to make the case to state lawmakers to build and fund this project as soon as possible.”  

Now that the hangar site is zoned for the veterans cemetery, the city has to examine the funding options available for the site. 

FivePoint Holdings, a developer in the city of Irvine, originally dedicated $28 million towards the construction of the cemetery if it was built on the golf course site, but currently has no similar commitment for the hangar site. 

Shea asked that Councilmembers Melissa Fox and Mike Carroll reach out to FivePoint and ask them to consider transferring all of a or a portion of their $28 million commitment to the golf course site to the hangar site. 

The council also raised concerns that the $20 million promised by the state of California to develop the cemetery could be revoked due to the coronavirus epidemic slashing tax revenues statewide. 

The hangar site is projected to cost over $90 million according to city staff reports from 2019

Opponents of the initiative wanted to see the proposal sent to the November ballot, along with a competing measure that would be passed by the city council zoning the golf course as the cemetery site. Shea proposed that measure, but it died from lack of support on the council.  

Nick Berardino, President of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, said that the council’s vote “has set the cemetery back for many years, if not entirely.” 

“While it hurts to see they took the action they took, it hurts more to see how they disregarded a fundamental tenet of our democracy, the right to vote, an issue that men and women they denied tonight, fought for,” Berardino said.

“I hope I’m wrong, but time will tell.”