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As Irvine city officials move toward picking a spot for a state veterans cemetery after eight years of debate, the only thing that is becoming clear is that the city is likely to get dragged into a nasty legal battle no matter where it goes within the city limits.
Meanwhile, some veterans have already written off an Irvine cemetery as a lost cause after eight years of deadlocked debate and have turned to county-owned land in Anaheim as their new hope.
In the past few years, the debate in Irvine has boiled down to two sites on the ruins of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro base. One site is set on a row of old hangars near an air control tower, and the other is on land zoned to become a golf course. Either one would potentially offer roughly 100 acres of burial ground, with space for 200,000 veterans in the coming decades.
Last week, David Gerard, an assistant deputy secretary in the California Department of Veterans Affairs, updated the city council on the progress of a costy study of the sites, confirming it would be completed by May.
Once the study is done, the council has to pick a site to offer the state for construction, which they can accept or reject.
When asked by council members what the city could do to speed up the process, Gerard’s answer was unambiguous: Pick a site quickly.
“I sympathize with the fact there are different views, but in my personal opinion it makes it more difficult to proceed,” Gerard said. “The council needs to come to a decision on what piece of property they would like to move forward with.”
The final site has become a political football of sorts.
Last May, the council approved a voter initiative led by Councilman Larry Agran to zone the hangar site as the exclusive location for any state veterans cemetery.
But almost a year later, no one on the dais besides Agran is willing to publicly commit to building at the hangar site, including the three council members who previously voted in support of the hangar site.
Councilmembers Mike Carroll and Tammy Kim both said they would support whichever site the state recommended, while Councilman Anthony Kuo and Mayor Farrah Khan haven’t said whether they would follow the recommendation, saying they want to wait for the study’s results.
“We need to know exactly what we’re getting into,” Khan said.
Should the city council reverse its decision on the hangar site, they’re likely in for a fierce legal battle.
Irvine city attorney Jeff Melching has repeatedly stated that initiative cannot restrict the state because it only changes local zoning laws, zoning the hangar site as the exclusive site for a cemetery.
But the state is not bound by local zoning restrictions on property it owns, meaning once the city transfers the property to the state they would be freed from that restriction, according to Melching.
Agran and supporters of the hangar site insist that further debate on a site is a waste of time because the hangar site is the only approved location, but without support by any other council members it’s unclear how enforceable their initiative will be. They have threatened to sue the city should the cemetery move to the golf course site.
“The bizarre theory advanced by the city attorney would of course invite an immediate challenge,” Agran said in a phone call with Voice of OC Friday afternoon. “You either honor the will of the people or you don’t. I would absolutely challenge it.”
Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance for Orange County and a long time proponent of the golf course site, called Agran’s claims about the hangar site “the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in 55 years of politics.”
“The level of deceit and misrepresentation by the individuals pushing for the (hangar) site is beyond anything I’ve seen,” Berardino said in a phone call with Voice of OC on Wednesday. “I think when the study comes back in May that the council majority will make a decision based on the facts contained in the study.”
But if the council moves forward at the hangar site, they may also be facing an uphill battle from residents surrounding the cemetery, who have come out in force at recent city council meetings to speak against the cemetery given its proximity to homes and an elementary school.
“I would love nothing more than to honor the military with a beautiful cemetery, they deserve it,” said the first commenter, listing a series of friends and family who served in the military. “However…neither my dad, or my father in law, or even my friend agrees that veterans should be placed directly next to Cadence Park Elementary School.”
Agran has said roughly 25 acres of the cemetery’s edge will be converted into a buffer zone with trees and pointed out the cemetery won’t be fully developed for decades, but residents still aren’t interested.
Rather than wait to see what the city chooses, one group of veterans has decided to abandon the effort in Irvine altogether, citing the years of turmoil that have yet to reward any tangible results for veterans.
Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, has asked for everyone to drop the effort in Irvine and relocate the cemetery to a piece of county owned land at Gypsum Canyon, near the intersection of the 241 and 91 freeways.
“There’s threats of litigation and if Larry doesn’t get his way he’ll sue, and if neighbors get a cemetery stuffed in their backyard they’ll sue. I look at this and say there’s no way to win here. Irvine can’t win and the veterans can’t win in this situation,” Cook said. “Our win is to have Irvine just say we want to get out of the cemetery business…that ends all the controversy in Irvine and puts us on the path to get a cemetery.”
The state has not yet reviewed the Gypsum Canyon site, but Gerard confirmed last week that the department could evaluate additional sites if directed by the state.
The next public discussion on the cemetery likely won’t be until May, when Irvine is set to receive the results of the state study.