With the signing of the new state budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom brought $24.5 million in funding back to the Orange County Veterans Cemetery project, but questions still linger over what will be the next steps in its development. 

The funding was originally pulled in Newsom’s proposed budget in May. In that version, the only funds remaining were $700,000 to study two sites for the cemetery’s proposed location. 

The $24.5 million is intended to partially fund construction of the cemetery, with plans to obtain federal and private funding to complete the rest of the development, which is currently projected to cost, by one estimate, as much as $90 million. With a site settled for now, other elements of the plan still remain murky, including when construction could start or even when the state will actually invest the money set aside.

After renegotiations with the state Legislature, the funds were left in the account. According to Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Democrat, the money was never taken from the Department of Veterans Affairs during negotiations. 

“It was (Newsom’s) proposal, and then the assembly and senate negotiated back what he had taken out because that money was allocated the year before,” Quirk-Silva said. 

State Democratic Sen. Tom Umberg, another proponent of the cemetery, also said he was confident the funds weren’t going to move. 

“I’m not surprised at all. The way the budget process works is that each side proposes what they’re going to propose, and then you negotiate,” Umberg said. “I never doubted that the governor was supportive of the cemetery. The issue, I think from his perspective, was when the resources were going to be available.”

The returned funds followed a decision by the Irvine City Council adopting a ballot initiative in May with nearly 20,000 signatures that set the cemetery on a portion of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station with portions of old runways, hangars, and a control tower. 

The initiative also included a zoning restriction that the cemetery could only be built on that piece of land, ending an eight-year debate over its location by local proponents and opponents of the site. 

Members on both sides hoped the city and state could now move onto the process of transferring the hangar site to the state’s custody to begin construction. 

Still others at the state level continue to debate whether the hanger site is the best path forward for the cemetery.

In a letter sent to Gov. Newsom in May after the council’s approval of the initiative, state Democratic Sen. Bob Archuletta, chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, advocated for the state to use the $700,000 already set aside to study both the hangar site and another site in the Great Park, on land once zoned to be a golf course. 

Both locations were previously studied, but neither has been reviewed by the state in at least two years. 

The golf course site was the last one the cemetery was set to be built on before the City Council voted to move to the hangar location. 

But Umberg has argued that with the council’s vote, there’s no longer a need to study both sites. 

“That’s been resolved. There’s some consensus now, there’s no need to study a site where the cemetery can’t be located,” Umberg said. “An update of the study, which is much less expensive, that’s the next step.”

Quirk-Silva said that both sites should still be examined, and that while the $24.5 million was now set aside that didn’t mean the state would be taking over stewardship of the location just yet. 

“I have read some writings or suggestions…that the state needs to just take over the site. That’s not going to happen until really the money is there to show it’s a feasible site. The state’s not just going to take over a site and start maintaining it until the money is there,” Quirk-Silva said. “According to a feasibility study quite a while ago…we’re still $50 million short (on the total funding needed for the cemetery).” 

If the state chooses to move the cemetery to a new site, Irvine could be stuck with 125 acres of land zoned exclusively for a cemetery that will not be built there. The only way to reverse the site’s zoning situation would be through another ballot proposition.

The Irvine City Council is also conflicted over where the project should go next: After approving the hangar site in May, the panel deadlocked over a decision to look into investing city funds in the plan. 

Council members Melissa Fox and Farrah Khan proposed fronting money to begin demolition on the site, with a plan to ask the state for reimbursement when the site was turned over to it, but council members Anthony Kuo and Mike Carroll rejected the proposal without a written assurance the funds would be returned. 

Mayor Christina Shea was absent from the discussion, but also voiced her opposition to begin demolition before she left the council meeting early that night. 

Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor and one of the proponents of the initiative choosing the hangar site, agreed with Umberg’s argument that the fight for the site was over and strongly criticized the City Council’s decision not to invest in the project and said it will seriously delay it. 

“We have the build it now plan. Shea, Carroll and Kuo, their plan is apparently to build it never,” Agran said. “I think this is going to be a big issue in the election. At some point, you need to have a mayor and city council who will heed the will of the people.” 

Agran also said the state’s $24.5 million could cover the costs of demolition the city did not want to pay for, and that he believed the investment would attract federal funds in the future. 

“If the state puts some money into it, that should attract federal money, probably in the amount of about $10 million,” Agran said. “Rarely do projects of this sort start with all of the money that would be available.” 

Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, said the best thing the city can do now is meet with the state to figure out what has to happen next.

“With those parameters set, the adoption of the site and the fact that no construction will come until after getting state approval, we should accept that as a compromise and now move forward with meeting with the state,” Berardino said in a phone call with Voice of OC Monday.

Berardino also said he agreed with Quirk-Silva’s proposal of further discussions at the state level, bringing up questions over what the state needs in order to move the project forward. 

“Those are exactly the kinds of discussions that need to take place with the state immediately,” Berardino said. “All of those things should be part of this broader discussion…tell us now what you need.” 

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

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