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State veteran affairs officials recently confirmed in public that they will proceed with a study of two competing sites for a state veterans cemetery in Irvine.

But what happens after the results are back is still remains up in the air. 

The veterans’ cemetery has been a hotly debated issue in local politics for nearly a decade, and advocates for both potential locations have said they hope the new study definitively determines which site will be the cheapest to build on. 

The two sites under review are both on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, with one set on a set of land where an air traffic control tower and hangars still stand and the other on a site zoned to become a golf course in the Great Park. 

Currently, $700,000 is set aside in the state budget to finance the study, and the contractor conducting the study said they expect results by May 2021. While both sites have received studies before, with the hangar site from state officials and the golf course site reviewed by city staff, the new study will look at both sites on the same criteria. 

“They will be an apples to apples comparison,” said David Gerard, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Capital Assets and Facilities Management for the California Department of Veterans Affairs, who was on the phone for an Irvine city council meeting last week. “In my experience, the driving force is the cost of these cemeteries.”

Gerard said he expects that the state’s review of the sites will be insulated from any political interference, saying they were obligated to “get this done,” regardless of any outside pressure. The new study will be conducted by the outside firm Huitt-Zollars Inc, an engineering firm with a branch in Irvine.

But in a phone call with Voice of OC after the meeting, Gerard said because of all the controversy surrounding what the final site is for the cemetery, there still isn’t an answer as to what happens once that study is finished. 

“Our experience was that there was one piece of property and everyone was in alignment with where the cemetery was to be located,” Gerard said. “We’ve never been down this path before, as to who ultimately has authority.” 

Currently, the only certainty in the process is that the studies will go forward and that the results will be made public, but Gerard described what happens next as uncharted territory with discussions between the state and local government over which site is selected. 

“There isn’t really a straightforward step by step answer,” Gerard said. “The questions (from city council members) were coming from all different directions as absolutes. And to be honest, there really aren’t any as to ‘Well what’s the next step after the studies are complete?’” 

The city has to approve whatever site is turned over to the state government, but whether or not the state can afford to build the cemetery there largely depends on the cost. 

The entire pot of funding from the federal government for the country is around $45 million according to Gerard. The cheapest assessed site is currently the golf course site, which according to a 2019 review by city staff would cost at least $58 million.

The state will have to pick up whatever funds the federal government can’t provide, leaving them with a gap worth tens of millions of dollars. Currently, only $24.5 million is set aside for the cemetery’s final site in the state budget. 

The department is hoping to submit an application to the federal government for funds to build the cemetery by the end of June 2021, but Gerard said that a final site won’t have to be picked by that time. The site would be able to shift on an annual basis. 

“If we submit it once, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed,” Gerard said. “Hopefully a decision has been made, but it doesn’t have to be.” 

But Gerard said that until the state and local governments can select a site, the process will continue to be stuck in limbo. 

“We need to get in alignment what piece of property we want to use. The responsibility falls on all of us,” Gerard said. “Otherwise we’re just going to continue to do studies until we’ve reached a conclusion.”

Local debate over the final resting place for veterans has raged for nearly a decade, with the most recent news coming after the city council approved a ballot initiative to zone the hangar site for the cemetery. 

However, City Attorney Jeff Melching brought forward concerns to the council multiple times over the past year that the initiative the council approved has no binding power on the state’s decision, and that if the city gave the golf course site to the state, they would have the power to build it there. 

Nick Berardino, leader of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, praised the state’s decision to analyze both sites without taking into account the initiative, which he staunchly opposed, citing that the state had already committed to studying both sites. 

“After years of quarreling, dirty politics and disregard for veterans many prayers have been answered because we are finally on our way to building a cemetery,” Berardino said in a text to Voice of OC. “Respect for the brave men and women who sacrificed so much for our great nation is now glimmering on the horizon.” 

Larry Agran, a former Irvine mayor, current city council candidate and one of the authors of the initiative, agreed with Fox, saying that the city council’s choice not to stand behind the hangar site went against their constituents. 

“The city council really, if it were faithful to the voters, should’ve told the state in a letter exactly what the law of the city is which of course makes available the (hangar) site and makes completely unavailable the so called golf course site,” Agran said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “Any study of any other site is a total waste of time and money.”

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

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