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A long awaited study that could determine the future of a state veterans cemetery in Orange County is about to be released to the Irvine City Council, offering taxpayers a first look at how much they’ll be paying.
The study was expected to arrive on Tuesday, and no one seems to have any idea where it’s at or why it hasn’t been turned over. The California Department of Veterans Affairs, the division preparing the study, said it had no hard date for releasing the study on Thursday morning.
For eight years the cemetery has been a political football in Irvine, batted back and forth through multiple ballot referendums and elections as developers, politicians and veterans groups argued over a series of sites in Irvine.
Over the past few years, the discussion largely boiled down to two sites on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro base, with one site on a portion of the base’s old runways and air towers and another on land zoned to become a golf course.
Both sites would offer roughly 100 acres of burial ground, enough space for 200,000 veterans in the coming decades according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The study is the first apples to apples comparison of both sites, and while it won’t decide what the final location will be, it gives the first official comparison of what taxpayers will pay. After that, Irvine City Council members will vote on which land parcel to offer the state for construction.
Regardless of which site the city decides to hand over, they’re in for a fight.
Last year, council members approved a voter initiative championed by Councilman Larry Agran declaring the cemetery would be zoned at the hangar site. But a year later, many of the same council members who supported that vote are unwilling to commit to the site, saying they want to see the results of the state study before they commit.
Agran has already said he would support a lawsuit against the city if they chose the golf course site, and regardless of the cost study will continue to support the hangar site.
“The suggestion that because one site is more costly than the other that somehow that should be determinative of where this veterans memorial and cemetery is located is just in defiance of the will of the people,” Agran said. “I just get so annoyed by this notion they’re going to save $10-15 million by somehow searching for a smaller, inferior site for our veterans cemetery.”
Should the city reject the hangar site, they’ll be left with 125 acres of land zoned exclusively for a cemetery that’s not going there and limited options on how to change it because the changes were made by ballot initiative.
On the other side, Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance for Orange County and longtime proponent of the golf course site, said they’re just about done waiting on Irvine to get it together.
“We’ve worked our butts off through all the council meetings, legislation and community meetings to get it built but given Agran’s position we now face another obstacle that may be intolerable,” Berardino said. “In relation to his threats to sue, we’re not going to sit there and let brave men and women who deserve an honorable resting place be subjected to any more of his vile and vicious threats. Stand by.”
Great Park residents have also asked the cemetery be moved out of the hangar site, raising concerns about it’s proximity to homes and an elementary school with threats to sue if the city puts it in their backyard.
Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilmembers Tammy Kim, Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo have all said they plan to wait on this study to make their final decision, with Carroll and Kim both announcing whatever site the state recommends is the one they’ll vote for.
One group of veterans has broken off from the Irvine debate altogether, asking the city to swear off any involvement in the process and move the cemetery to Gypsum Canyon on a piece of county owned land in Anaheim.
“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,” said Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation in March. “There was a time when this was the only cemetery, and if you backed out you were going to crush us. But that’s no longer the case. The situation would be better if you just backed away.”
While the Gypsum Canyon site has not been reviewed by the state, Cook said he has already been working with the Orange County Cemetery District, and the state has confirmed it could review the site if directed by the legislature.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.