Irvine City Council To Vote On Veterans Cemetery Initiative

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Irvine City Council on March 11, 2020 meeting.

The Irvine City Council could decide the future location of a veterans cemetery in Orange County tonight, or set up a battle between two opposing initiatives on the November ballot. 

Veterans groups have been trying to build a cemetery on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for years, but a previous voter initiative and funding problems stalled the process.  

An initiative was put forward by a local organization called Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery, who gathered nearly 20,000 signatures to support moving the proposed cemetery to a new location. 

The initiative’s goal is to build the cemetery on a section of land near the heart of the old air station that still has hangars, barracks, and taxiways on it. 

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

Both sites were once part of the air station.

Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor and supporter of the initiative, said he was sad to see the issue was still being debated after all this time.

Agran was also a supporter of an earlier initiative in 2018 that killed a land swap move by the city to build the cemetery at a strawberry fields site near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange. 

“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. 

County election officials verified the results of the initiative late last month, counting over 17,000 signatures to verify that the initiative had reached the required 12,888 signatures to qualify for the city council’s consideration. 

Ordinarily, that would have left over 2,000 signatures uncounted, but the city requested the registrar do a thorough review of the signatures at a cost of over $67,000 to the city according to Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley. 

“We wanted to count every signature and make sure they qualified,” Shea said when asked about the expense in a phone interview with Voice of OC last month.

The council can vote to approve the initiative as written, or post it on the ballot for the November elections. 

Mayor Christina Shea requested that the council also discuss placing an initiative in direct opposition on the ballot, requiring that the cemetery be built at the golf course site and not the hangar site. 

Shea also said she would not vote in support of ratifying the initiative and would send it to the voters in November. 

If the council votes to send both initiatives to the ballot, voters would have the final say on their pick of the two sites. 

“It signals a real division between the city council and a faction within the community,” said Fred Smoller, a professor of political science at Chapman University. “This is the power of the initiative process. It allows a group or person to bypass the will of the council.” 

These initiatives are the second time in the last three years the veterans cemetery has been on the ballot, after a 2018 initiative killed the strawberry fields swap. 

After the voters shot down the idea of the swap, the city of Irvine decided to study the golf course site and the hangar site, ultimately selecting the golf course site because it would require less cleanup. 

FivePoint has also said they will dedicate $28 million towards the construction of the golf course site. If the cemetery is moved to the hangar site, FivePoint will be allowed to construct a golf course in the Great Park. 

One of the primary groups in support of the golf course site is the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, who have spoken out against the hangar site and the efforts to relocate the cemetery. 

US Marine Vietnam War combat veteran Nick Berardino, president of the alliance, said the attempt to relocate the cemetery is the “biggest fraud perpetrated on veterans in Orange County history.” 

The alliance is primarily funded by FivePoint. According to disclosures on the city of Irvine’s website, FivePoint has given $900,000 since 2018 to the group’s efforts. 

The Friends of the Great Park, another organization also funded by FivePoint donations, also donated an additional $100,000 during that time. 

Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery, the group who put forward the initiative, was primarily funded by retired residents and other citizens donating less than $100, according to campaign finance disclosures. 

Their total revenue raised since 2018 sits at just under $100,000 according to their campaign finance disclosures, along with nearly $300,000 in total loans over that same span.