The debate over a state veterans cemetery in Orange County has rolled on for over eight years, longer than America’s involvement in both World Wars combined.
And the project is still in limbo.
Over the past few years, the argument has boiled down to a decision between two sites on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, one set on a strip of runway and hangars and the other on land zoned to become a golf course.
State legislators, led by Orange County Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva voted in 2019 to study those sites in Irvine to see what would be the best deal for state taxpayers.
State Senator Bob Archuleta, Chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, has been a strong defender of that study, fighting back when it looked like support may be pulled last year, pointing out that it was essential to know the final costs to taxpayers.
That study is the first “apples to apples” comparison of the sites, and was hailed by advocates on both sides as the final say in which site was most cost effective. It’s expected to be completed in May, at which point city council members are slated to decide which site to offer the state.
But in May 2020, a ballot initiative led by Councilman Larry Agran and adopted by the city council set the hangar site as the only available option.
However, city attorney Jeff Melching says the initiative’s wording doesn’t take into account the state’s power to supersede local zoning codes — meaning the state could still choose either site, a point Agran and other advocates have repeatedly contested and say it will take years to battle in court.
Most recently, two state senators from Orange County — Tom Umberg and Dave Min — have quietly joined Agran’s side, pushing their Democrat colleagues on the city council to move forward at the hangar site, privately arguing that voters already spoke and there is no reason to wait for the study’s results.
“My impression is they’re eager to go ahead with the state veterans cemetery and helping us line up resources, but they need a resolution that reaffirms and underscores the commitment to the (hangar) site as the exclusive site,” Agran said in a phone call with Voice of OC last week.
Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan has made it clear she will not support doing that.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me, we need to know the current status and cost of developing at the (hangar) site,” Khan said in a phone call with Voice of OC Monday afternoon. “These aren’t things to stall the cemetery, this is due diligence that everyone would do.”
Umberg and Min did not return requests for comment from Voice of OC.
Others caution that Irvine has tried that unbudgeted approach before on the Great Park and that experience burned through $200 million with little transparency or tangible results, with homeowners near the park now on the hook for over $1 billion in the coming decades.
Nick Berardino, leader of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and a past proponent of the golf course site, has argued there’s no harm in waiting two more months to find out what the costs at each site would be, and to potentially end up spending millions of extra dollars was a “slap in the face,” to veterans and taxpayers.
“It’s unconscionable to subject taxpayers to backroom political deals avoiding transparency as to the actual costs of building the cemetery,” Berardino said in a phone interview last week. “Once the study is completed, that will provide taxpayers with the facts and it will form the decision by the state as to which property it wants to build.”
In a call with Voice of OC, Agran said it doesn’t matter if the golf course site is millions cheaper because the golf course site won’t be allowed without a lengthy legal battle over the initiative.
“I don’t know why people don’t get this. The golf course site is unavailable,“ Agran said. “Let’s say the (hangar) site is estimated to cost $63 million, and they came in at the golf course site at $43 million. That’s a $20 million difference. Are you kidding me, you’re going to delay this project for five, six, seven years to save $20 million?”
One thing both sides agree on is that the longer the debate over funding continues, the greater chance the funding for the cemetery dies altogether.
State legislators had to fight last year to hang onto over $24 million in funding for construction, and some advocates worry that if the city picks the more expensive site the state will turn it down.
“We’re offering the (hangar) site the people have decided that,” Agran said. “If the state rejects our offer and says give us another piece of land, that’s not going to happen.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.