The Irvine City Council approved a location for a veterans cemetery near the Great Park last week after nearly seven years of debate.
But now, the project may not have the funding to move forward.
In the revised budget published by the governor on Thursday, Newsom proposed taking back over $24 million in funds set aside for the cemetery to help replenish the state budget, which currently has a projected $54 billion deficit due to the coronavirus.
That proposal has not yet been approved by the legislature.
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.
The city council approved a voter initiative with close to 20,000 signatures to place the cemetery on a section of land near the heart of the old air station that still has hangars, barracks, and taxiways on it.
The hangar site was the original location discussed for the cemetery in 2013.
There was also discussion by the council regarding whether or not the initiative the council approved was binding to develop a cemetery, but the council is set to discuss the next steps for the cemetery at their meeting on June 2.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a long time proponent of the veterans cemetery at the state level, said that officials should have taken the opportunity to build the cemetery while they had the funding in a recent opinion published by Voice of OC.
“We had many opportunities, but the delays and site changes added years to this project. The old saying in government is, ‘Use it or lose it!’, and we just lost our state funding,” Quirk-Silva wrote. “In the future let’s get building, instead of arguing.”
State Senator Tom Umberg, another advocate for the cemetery and a veteran, said that while he was excited that there was finally a consensus on the site, it may take some time for the cemetery to actually be built there.
“In the short term we’ll focus on some other beneficial uses for veterans, perhaps there’s some opportunities for affordable veterans housing and other things, but ultimately I believe the cemetery will be built there,” Umberg said.
Umberg also said that the hangar site would possibly need a new study to assess the costs of building the cemetery. A study on the site was last conducted in 2013.
The other primary funding source for the veterans cemetery could be a donation from FivePoint Holdings, a developer partnered with the city to help build the Great Park.
Originally, FivePoint had dedicated $28 million towards an alternate site zoned for a golf course, but the city council is now asking if they would be willing to move that donation or a portion of that donation to the hangar site.
Now that the hangar site has been selected, FivePoint will be allowed to develop a golf course on the golf course site.
At the last city council meeting, Mayor Christina Shea directed Councilmembers Melissa Fox and Mike Carroll to reach out to FivePoint and see if they would be willing to transfer the donation.
When asked about whether they would explore transferring the funds, FivePoint declined to comment.
Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor and one of the leaders of the petition to establish the cemetery at the hangar site, said that Newsom’s proposal may not make it through in its current format, and called on state legislators to fight for funding the cemetery.
“I would plead to each of them that there’s enough left in the CalVet budget to keep it moving forward, maybe not as fast as we hoped and expected but to keep it moving forward,” Agran said. “Capital projects that are expensive are undertaken when the funds are available, I think it’s just our job to see to it that funds are made available from whatever source to get things moving along.”
Agran also spoke about potentially looking for federal funding to help jumpstart the first phases of construction, which could include demolition and the planting of trees around the two mile border of the hangar site.
“There’s no issue as to whether or not there’s a veterans cemetery needed in Orange County. Orange County is home to a huge number of veterans, with a storied connection to the Marine Corps.” Umberg said.
“That need will be met, it may take awhile but that need will be met.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @NBiesiada.