OC State Legislators Clash With State Senate Veterans Affairs Chair Over Proposed Veterans Cemetery Site

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The hangar site in Irvine on June 3, 2020. It was approved by the Irvine City Council on May 12, 2020.

Orange County legislators are clashing at the state level over the funding and location of a state veterans cemetery in Irvine less than two weeks after the city council chose a site for the project.  

Veterans groups have been attempting to build a cemetery on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for nearly seven years.  

While land has always been set aside for the cemetery, the biggest obstacle for construction has been tracking down funding to build the cemetery. 

After several site relocations, at the start of the year the cemetery was set to be built on land once zoned for a golf course in the Orange County Great Park. The state had pledged $24 million towards construction, and developer FivePoint Holdings had pledged an additional $28 million.

FivePoint was required to contribute $18 million towards the cemetery at the golf course site under an earlier agreement with the city, but an additional $10 million was offered as a bonus.  

Those pledges would fund nearly the full cost of the cemetery, which was set to cost nearly $59 million according to a study done by the state Department of General Services in 2018.  

Last month, the Irvine City Council approved a voter initiative that received nearly 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 other remains of the installation on it.  

Both sites were part of the air station, but the hangar site was the original site allocated for the cemetery seven years ago.  

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

But now, most of the funding is drying up. 

In the proposed budget by Gov. Newsom, the cemetery is set to lose over $20 million in funding that was promised to help close the state’s $54 billion deficit caused by the coronavirus. 

FivePoint has remained silent on whether or not they’ll still be investing their $25 million. With the cemetery moved to the hangar site, they are now cleared to construct a golf course in the Great Park and have no obligation to invest in the hangar site. 

Two weeks ago, Chair of the State Senate Veteran Affairs Committee Bob Archuleta sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledging that the funds needed to be redistributed, but requested he allocate $700,000 to study both the hangar site and the golf course site. 

“Over the years there have been several barriers, concerns, and competing sites for a cemetery project,” Archuletta wrote. “Due to the complexities associated with this issue, I believe it is our fiduciary responsibility to conduct an unbiased assessment of the competing sites prior to moving forward.” 

Archuletta’s request is in line with the previous action taken by the governor. Last September, Newsom signed Assembly Bill 368, which directed the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of General Services to conduct a study of the golf course and hangar sites to determine which would be the best location for the cemetery. 

The last review of the costs for each site was in 2018, when the Department of General Services estimated that the hangar site would cost $91 million, and the golf course site would cost close to $59 million. 

According to the study, the hangar site will be more expensive because of the cost of removing the remaining portions of the base, although proponents of the site have said those costs could be reduced by preserving historic pieces of the base, including the air control tower.  

Regardless of which site is chosen, the state will be in charge of constructing and maintaining the cemetery. 

The next day after Archuletta’s letter, Orange County state legislators fired back. 

In their own letter to the governor, five members of the State Assembly and two state senators sent a letter to the Governor specifically calling for the governor to pledge his support for construction at the hangar site. 

Signatories included Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva, a long time proponent of the veteran’s cemetery and Senator Tom Umberg, a member of the Veterans Affairs committee who has also argued in favor of the cemetery being placed at the hangar site. 

In a recent op-ed posted by the Voice of OC, Quirk-Silva said that while she was sad to see the funding for the cemetery pulled, she understood the reason behind the decision. 

“We have a growing homeless population, a serious housing crisis, and unemployment that may topple over 20%. Priorities in the state will now need to shift to economic recovery,” Quirk-Silva said. “We had many opportunities, but the delays and site changes added years to this project.”

Two of the other signers, Assemblymembers Bill Brough and Tyler Diep, will be leaving office at the end of the year after failing to make it through the March primary elections. 

The letter did not mention the golf course site, nor did it ask for a commitment of any funding, stating that while the loss of the funding would be a “set back,” they understood the decision.

“We all agree that the devoting of any large amount of General Fund monies at this time would, understandably, not be financially prudent,” the letter said. “The support for the Southern California Veterans Memorial park and Cemetery on the (hangar) site must not diminish.” 

Several members of the Orange County delegation were not signed onto the letter, including Assemblyman Steven Choi, a former Irvine mayor and representative for the district where the cemetery would be built. 

Nick Berardino, President of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, also supports having the state examine both sites to determine which is the most cost effective. 

“The governor signed legislation to study two sites to determine which is the most feasible and cost effective for the taxpayers,” Berardino said. “There will be no cemetery without a study to protect taxpayers interests.” 

Larry Agran, former Irvine mayor and one of the leaders of the Build the Great Park organization that brought the initiative approved by the council forward, expressed his support for the legislators’ letter and said that any comparative study “would be a waste of time.” 

“Archuleta’s asking for money for a study, and there’s really nothing left to study. At this point, there’s only one site available in Irvine,” Agran said. “It was great to see all the others signed on, Republicans and Democrats alike. This reflects the popular will of the people not only in Irvine but across all of Orange County.” 

The initiative approved by the council stated that the hangar site would be the only site in the city zoned for construction of a veterans cemetery, but Mayor Christina Shea and city attorney Jeff Melching have made the argument that the city and state are not restricted by the zoning code as long as a public agency owns the property. 

Thursday night, Agran published the “Build It Now!” plan in the Irvine Community News and Views, calling for the city to pledge at least $13 million toward clearing the site and beginning to set up trees and trails along the edge of the hangar site. 

Agran proposed a settlement between the city and state of California as a funding source. After the state’s decision to dismantle redevelopment agencies, Irvine sued the state and won $292 million, which is paid in annual installments. 

Currently, the city fund set up to manage the settlement money projects the fund will hold over $172 million by the end of the next fiscal year, according to the 2019-21 Irvine city budget. 

Agran said that the city could pay for the demolition and make it a condition that when the property was transferred to the state, the state would reimburse the city for the demolition costs. 

Agran said he was speaking with city councilmembers and was hoping to schedule a discussion on the issue as early as June 23.

“It’s just a question of kind of advancing the money, moving quickly to make these improvements so we don’t lose more time,” Agran said. “It’s a test of the resolve of the councilmembers now that the site decision has been made. Now the question is do people really want to move ahead and build the veterans cemetery now?” 

When asked to comment on Agran’s plan, Berardino said that the city should wait to invest any funds until the final site has been selected. 

“If the City applies the money to a site unacceptable to the state the city will have to pay the entire $60-90 million for construction,” Berardino said. “This is so simple, let the state do its study, we all live with the results and build it.” 

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