State officials late Friday afternoon publicly released a long awaited study estimating the costs of two potential sites for a veterans cemetery in Irvine.
By all accounts, it’s now up to Irvine city council members to pick a path forward.
There are two competing proposed sites for an ambitious plan to build a veterans cemetery sit on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. One of the sites sits at the northern edge of the Great Park, holding onto an air traffic control tower and old hangars, while the other sits on land zoned to become a golf course.
While the hangar site is 125 acres, officials are discussing creating a 25 acre park buffer zone on the edge of the site, leaving both with roughly 100 acres with space for 200,000 veterans according to a March presentation from the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to the study released Friday, the two sites have a vast difference in price: while the hangar site is set to cost just over $110 million to construct, the golf course site is estimated at $74.3 million.
The study’s release represents a major crossroads for the city council: while Councilman Larry Agran has been a longtime supporter of the hangar site, the rest of the council have avoided making their thoughts on the sites known publicly.
Agran worked with community members to get a ballot initiative adopted by the city council choosing the hangar site last year.
Yet one of the biggest obstacles in cemetery construction is the required coordination between local, state and federal agencies to produce the necessary space and funding.
According to federal rules on veteran cemeteries, Irvine city council members have to first turn a site over to the state, at which point the state then has to fight for federal funding and state tax dollars to fund construction or can reject the site altogether.
Between the federal and state government, there are currently eight veterans cemeteries in California accepting new applications for burial, the closest of which is in Riverside County, with the other sites nearly 100 miles or more away from Orange County.
Over the past eight years, Irvine’s process has largely been held up by its inability to select a final site, turning the cemetery into a political football bounced between developers, politicians and veterans groups that continues to run in circles.
David Gerard, an assistant deputy secretary with the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs, gave the council their next clear step at an update in March: Pick a site and stick with it.
“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.”
State Senator Tom Umberg, a veteran and supporter of the veterans cemetery, said while he believes the city’s quickest option is the hangar site, he still agreed with Gerard’s assessment.
“Irrespective of what the survey says, Irvine city council has to decide on a course of action and begin the process of moving forward,” Umberg said to Voice of OC on Friday before the study was released. “My concern is inertia will kill the veterans cemetery, inaction will kill this cemetery.”
Advocates for both sides have already come out fighting for their sites since the report’s release late Friday.
Councilman Larry Agran, one of the hangar site’s leading champions, said the cost shouldn’t be a deciding factor in which site gets chosen.
“I think the idea here, I’ll be blunt, is to identify a site where the project can be done on the cheap,” Agran said in a phone call with Voice of OC Friday evening. “You get what you pay for, and what the state ought to be paying for in exchange for receiving some of the most valuable real estate on the planet is a beautiful veterans memorial park and cemetery.”
Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and a longtime supporter of the golf course site, said the report fell in line with what he expected to see.
“The study is exactly what we expected and we appreciate the work of (Department of Veteran’s Affairs),” Berardino said.
Regardless of which site the council picks, they’ll almost certainly face a lawsuit.
Last year, the council approved a ballot initiative zoning the hangar site as the exclusive location for a veterans cemetery, and supporters of that move have indicated they will sue the city should they seek to put it on the golf course site.
But the hangar site comes with another set of issues: Great Park residents have complained at multiple city council meetings about having a cemetery so close to homes and an elementary school, and have threatened to take action if the city proceeds there.
On Thursday night, Khan and Kuo sent a letter on city letterhead directly to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office requesting special consideration of resident concerns about the hangar site. The letter wasn’t ever discussed by the council publicly before its release.
“No matter which site is picked, it’s going to be important for the state to understand we need some sort of a barrier,” Khan said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “We want to make sure whatever the decision comes down to we’re providing that protection from our residents.”
Ultimately, the gridlock has started to wear on many veterans, as some have started looking outside the city to bring a cemetery to Orange County. Some are starting to look at a piece of land in Gypsum Canyon owned by the county and asking Irvine to back off altogether.
“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.”
The city council meets this coming Tuesday, but is not expected to discuss the issue as city staff review the reports and schedule a presentation alongside the report’s creators.