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After hours of discussion, the Irvine City Council early Wednesday opted against picking a site for a veterans cemetery in the city, effectively ending nearly a decade’s worth of debate and planning with council members not taking a vote on the issue.
Multiple council members endorsed a new push to establish the cemetery on a piece of county-owned land at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim, saying that while an Irvine cemetery site would remain on the table for future discussion, there was little chance it could work.
“Right now, it seems as though a cemetery in Irvine may be a square peg in a round hole. Keeping it here in Irvine doesn’t allow it to move forward; it’s like holding it hostage.”City Councilwoman Tammy Kim
Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilman Mike Carroll also endorsed the new focus on Gypsum, saying it represented a potential path forward for veterans.
“We always wanted the cemetery in Irvine, but like people were saying you’ve got to compromise, so if there is no compromise there’s no way to move forward here,” Khan said in an interview with Voice of OC after a marathon council meeting. “At this point, I don’t want to string along our veterans…my goal is to put all my effort behind them and get them the cemetery.”
While the fight over a veterans cemetery in Irvine has raged for years, the last few years narrowed debate to two potential sites at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. One site sits at the northern edge of the Great Park, housing a former air traffic control tower and old hangars, while the other is on land zoned to become a golf course.
Either location would accommodate roughly 200,000 veterans burial spaces, according to a March presentation from the California Department of Veterans Affairs. The golf course site is expected to cost $74.3 million to construct, while the hangar site is estimated at $110 million.
Most of the Tuesday night council meeting was dominated by dozens of public commenters sharing their thoughts on the issue until well after midnight, arguing for the City Council to pick the site they backed.
Residents in support of the hangar site were led by the Build the Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery group, citing a ballot initiative approved by the City Council last year zoning the land for the veterans’ final resting place.
A second group of residents from the Great Park called on the council to reject any cemetery placed in the Great Park, citing concerns about having it so close to nearby schools and homes and complaining they were never told about it before moving in.
The final group represented a countywide coalition of veterans calling on the city to pause efforts while the Gypsum Canyon site was studied, which some advocates think represents the best path forward around an impasse on the issue in Irvine.
After public comment, Mayor Farrah Khan pitched the idea of forming a middle ground between the hangar and golf course sites with more study, but she relented after her motion was ignored by the rest of the council.
“Don’t ever say I didn’t try,” Khan said. “I have no other choice but to allow the veterans to do what they want in Anaheim.”
Councilman Larry Agran, a longtime proponent of the hangar site, asked the council to reaffirm its commitment to the hangar site and begin working with the state to get started on fundraising, but his motion also failed to pick up a second.
“I have one paramount hope and expectation: and that’s that we will follow the law,” Agran said, referring to the ballot initiative adopted by the council last year. “We have already selected the site. The site we selected dating back to 2014 is the 125-acre city-owned (hangar) site.”
After the council failed to move forward on any items in over four hours of testimony and discussion, the meeting was adjourned.
Nick Berardino, one of the leaders of the veterans coalition and former head of the Orange County Employees Association, said that the long debate between public commenters only reinforced his belief a cemetery in Irvine isn’t possible.
“It was clear tonight beyond a reasonable doubt that the community is very very split, and there’s absolutely no possibility they can bring everybody together. It makes sense for everyone to work together and explore the possibility of the Anaheim site.”Nick Berardino
Beyond disagreements over the final site, many commenters took aim at the role of developer FivePoint Holdings in the process, tagging the city’s largest campaign contributor as the ultimate reason the cemetery never got built.
Should the hangar site not be turned into a cemetery, FivePoint has a deal with the city guaranteeing the company first rights to buy the land if it goes to market. The developer has put over $2 million on the line to support alternative sites, including through donations to some of the veterans groups now calling for the Gypsum Canyon site.
The city’s campaign finance database shows FivePoint has not invested any money in those veterans groups since the 2018 election.
Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and one of the original activists who called for a cemetery, acknowledged FivePoint’s claim to the land, and said while he initially supported the hangar site, it was never planned for that to be the final location.
“The (hangar) site served one party to successfully block the rights of the developer, and it served the veterans as trade bait for something better,” Cook said. “Many of these (hangar) site supporters are just using this in their war on FivePoint.”
Don Geller, a member of the Build the Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery steering committee, said despite the outcome, he is still holding out hope for a compromise to deliver Irvine residents the cemetery they had been promised for years.
“If there’s dedication, it can be accomplished,” Geller said.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.