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After state officials released a long awaited study announcing the costs of building a veterans cemetery at two potential sites in Irvine, some veterans groups are calling on the city to renounce their hold on the project altogether.  

There are two competing proposed sites for the cemetery 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. 

Now, Irvine City Council members have to turn one of the sites over to the state so they can start gathering state and federal funding to break ground. 

But on Monday morning, proponents of the golf course site announced they were abandoning the location, asking the council to renounce a cemetery altogether and move the project to a piece of county owned land in Gypsum Canyon.

The groups leading the charge to Gypsum are the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, one of the most visible groups originally pushing for a cemetery in Irvine.  

Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and a longtime supporter of the golf course site, said no matter what site gets picked, veterans feel like they can’t win in Irvine. 

Last year, the council adopted a ballot initiative zoning the hangar site as the exclusive location for the cemetery, and the initiative’s supporters have indicated they will sue the city should they seek to put it at 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.

“(Site selection) doesn’t matter, both sides have lined up and are prepared to fight it out with us in the middle,” Berardino said in a phone call with Voice of OC Monday morning. “We’re hoping that the city council will understand that veterans are in a no win situation in Irvine.” 

Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and a board member with the alliance, announced he was abandoning an Irvine cemetery months ago, saying the site selection just continued to go in circles. 

“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 in March. “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 canyon site has not been reviewed by the state, but could be if the state legislature directed the Department of Veterans Affairs to do so. In a letter sent to Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan Monday morning, Berardino said he was “100% convinced,” the cemetery could be built there after conversations with county staff and supervisors. 

The statement also took aim at Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, the only supporter of the hangar site on the council, saying if the city selects that site they will be dragged into a drawn out battle for the additional $35 million needed to bridge the funding gap. 

Following the study’s release, Agran has defended the cost difference, saying there’s no better way to honor veterans than the hangar site. 

“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 on Friday. “That’s not what I’m interested in, I’m interested in having the state fund, build, operate and maintain a beautiful veterans memorial park and cemetery.” 

Agran also took aim at the Gypsum Canyon site, pointing out how the lack of any study made its final cost unknowable. 

“The Gypsum Canyon site is a complete nonstarter…it just isn’t going to happen,” Agran said. “If they were to get started now on this, it’d take another 5 or 10 years to get any necessary approvals.” 

The state study also lacks a key issue many of Irvine’s council members were banking on: a recommendation from the state on which site the council should choose. Without one, the ultimate final decision on where the cemetery should go, whether in the city of Irvine or beyond, rests on their shoulders. 

Even before the study was released, Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilman Anthony Kuo seemed to be backing away from having the city make the final decision, sending a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office seemingly backing away from the hangar site.

In an interview with Voice of OC, Kuo said even though the city has the final choice, he wants to sit down with the state and find out which site they want. 

“The city and whichever appropriate parties from the state…we really should have a meeting,”  Kuo said on Friday. “I do think we should all come together as different parties to say what can we all do to achieve the publicly stated mutual goal of having a final resting place for the veterans.”

While Agran has been very vocal about his position on the site, the rest of the council has avoided stating any preference other than they want the cemetery in Irvine. 

Khan and Kuo both said they wouldn’t make a decision until they reviewed the study, and council members Tammy Kim and Mike Carroll said they would select whatever site the state preferred at their last discussion on the issue in March. 

The city council’s next meeting is scheduled for tomorrow evening, but the council did not agendize any discussion on the report because it was delivered to the city on Friday evening. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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