Location of Veterans Cemetery In Irvine In Play Again

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Veterans before a 21-gun salute at a site dedication ceremony at the now defunct strawberry field site. Oct. 27, 2017.

The head of the state senate’s Veterans Affairs committee wants Gov. Gavin Newsom to step into the controversial debate over a site for a veterans museum in Irvine, seeking funds for a study to figure out where to place the cemetery – weeks after the Irvine City Council voted on a site with the hopes of avoiding a threatened city resident initiative process.

Chair of the State Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Bob Archuleta sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom calling for $700,000 in promised funds to study potential sites for an Orange County Veterans cemetery last week. 

The cemetery was originally allocated over $24 million for construction in the budget, but in a recent budget revision issued by Gov. Newsom, the state pulled the funding to help with the $54 billion deficit caused by the coronavirus shutdown. 

In the letter, Archuleta acknowledged the state’s financial troubles and praised Newsom’s handling of the budget crisis, but asked the state to honor its pledge for the money to study the sites. 

“I believe it is our fiduciary responsibility to conduct an unbiased assessment of the competing sites prior to moving forward,” Arhculeta said in the letter. “This assessment is vital in determining which location will ultimately be the final site for the Southern California Veterans cemetery.” 

Senator Archuleta’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The letter again calls into question the site for the Orange County Veterans Cemetery. 

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

Earlier this month, the Irvine City Council approved a voter initiative to place 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 received close to 20,000 signatures, and was put forward by an organization called Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery. After an additional review paid for by the city, the Orange County Registrar verified the results of the initiative and 

Previously, the cemetery was 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. 

The move was hailed as the end to years of conflict over the cemetery, as advocates on both sides said they were ready to move forward with building the first veterans cemetery in Orange County. 

Mayor Christina Shea, the solitary vote against approving the initiative, said that the initiative had no legal power, as it only implemented a zoning code for that property. Under the city’s municipal code, the city is not bound by zoning restrictions on property it owns, and neither is the state of California. 

“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 at the meeting where the council approved the initiative. 

Shea’s comments were supported by the city attorney, who said as long as the city owned the property, the zoning restrictions would not apply. 

Nick Berardino, President of the Veteran’s Alliance of Orange County, said he viewed the move by Archuletta as “bringing sanity to the process.” 

“Simply, the state’s going to build it and pay for it. Therefore, the state will determine the most feasible site,” Berardino said. “They’re going to be putting up tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. They not only have the right, but a fiduciary responsibility to pick the most feasible site.”

Berardino had previously spoken against the hangar site, saying that the initiative should’ve been placed on the November ballot with a competing initiative for the golf course site, giving voters the final choice on the issue. 

Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor and leading member of Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery, said that Shea’s interpretation of the zoning law was incorrect and that the initiative guaranteed the hangar site would be the final site for the cemetery. 

“That’s not the best work I’ve ever seen from the city attorney. In fact, Shea, who of course doesn’t know anything about the law, and the city attorney are sadly, badly misinformed about the effect of the initiative,” Agran said. “The initiative is a binding zoning document upon the city council, and it cannot be changed except with another vote of the city of the people of Irvine.”

“To put it more bluntly, the fight over the site, the location of the state built, state operated, veterans memorial state park and cemetery, is over.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.