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A coalition of veterans groups and politicians are calling on Orange County to study placing a state veterans cemetery in Gypsum Canyon, overriding years of debate in Irvine that some advocates believe has no end in sight.
The potential site would be off the 91 Freeway, on a plot of county owned land already set to become a public cemetery.
The coalition garnered support from 24 different veterans groups in Orange County, including every VFW post in the county and over half a dozen American Legion posts.
The effort also picked up signatures from a wide variety of county political figures, including Congressman Lou Correa, State Senator Josh Newman, and county supervisors Andrew Do, Don Wagner and Katrina Foley.
The organizing was spearheaded by Nick Berardino, leader of the Veterans Alliance for Orange County, who announced he was abandoning any site selection in Irvine last week ahead of the city council’s vote between two potential sites.
“Site selection in the city of Irvine is a floating shipwreck,” Berardino said. “They have to work that out among themselves, we’re not going to stay on until the ship sinks.”
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.
Either site would leave space for roughly 200,000 veterans, 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.
The next step in the process is for Irvine City Council members to choose which parcel they offer up to the state, who can then start organizing funding to get it done.
But no matter which site they choose, potential lawsuits are looming.
Advocates for the hangar location have already threatened to sue should the city choose the golf course site, citing a ballot initiative passed by the City Council last year zoning the hangar site as the only home for a cemetery in the city.
But if council members opt for the hangar site, nearby residents from the Great Park have threatened to sue over concerns about having a cemetery so close to homes — a decision they said they were left out of the loop on.
Berardino said no matter what happens in Irvine, there’s no possible victory for veterans in the city.
“I think it’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever witnessed in politics, that these Irvine lawmakers have made us beg for a place to be buried. That’s insanity,” Berardino said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “We don’t need any more wars, we’ve already done our time in one.”
Build the Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery, the group asking for the city to place it at the hangar site, think the Gypsum site would result in years more of delays with further studies.
“We consider this site years and years away. More studies, more money, and it’s just not fair to the residents in Irvine who have voted for this site and the city council who agreed to put this site in Irvine,” said Don Geller, a member of the organization’s steering committee.
Geller also raised concerns that in the absence of a cemetery, the hangar site would be converted into a commercial center, a long time concern for cemetery advocates.
While the land is currently owned by the city, it was formerly owned by developer FivePoint Holding, which also has an arrangement with the city that guarantees them first rights to the land should it ever be put up for sale.
FivePoint has offered to invest $28 million in construction toward the golf course site, but has said they won’t move that money toward the hangar site.
Geller also called a lawsuit against the city a “certainty,” should the council vote against moving forward at the hangar site.
“If the city council breaks the law, there have to be consequences.”
Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, a longtime partner of the organization who helped write the 2020 ballot initiative zoning the hangar site for construction, had a similar response, accusing FivePoint of delaying the process for years and alleging that any construction at Gypsum Canyon would be more expensive due to the area’s geography.
He also called on his council colleagues to start spending money renovating the hangar site.
While there is no existing promise from the state to reimburse the city for any money they spend at the site, Agran said it can be required as part of the transfer agreement.
“Why wouldn’t we do the demolition and clean up the site? It’s our duty to clean up that site,” Agran said in a phone call Monday afternoon. “If it winds up costing us, then at the time that site is transferred, be it to the state or to anybody else, we would want to get those costs covered.”
The Irvine City Council is set to vote on the issue at their 4:00 p.m. Tuesday meeting, where they could choose one of the two sites already available or delay a decision altogether. The meeting can be viewed here.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.