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A veterans cemetery likely won’t happen in Irvine any time soon after city council members refused to choose a site and encouraged veterans to seek other options, despite nearly a decade of discussion and at least $1 million taxpayer dollars spent.
“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.”Irvine City Councilwoman Tammy Kim at the council’s last meeting
Depending on who you ask, there are different answers on why the cemetery never got built.
But everyone agrees on one thing: the project ran in circles for way too long.
Veterans groups and Irvine City Council members are now calling for the cemetery to be built at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim, despite nearly a decade of efforts to build one at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
This isn’t Irvine’s first project to get stuck in the mud.
A new home for USA Water Polo in the Great Park was announced in October 2019 with massive fanfare, but it has barely been discussed outside of a single mention by the city council that the developer was redesigning due to the pandemic.
The Great Park itself, originally set to cost taxpayers $350 million and be completely finished a decade ago has now ballooned to over $1 billion, with nearby homeowners on the hook for most of the bill.
Currently, the city has two potential veteran cemetery sites up for consideration, with a 125 acre parcel at the northern edge of the Great Park that holds onto the air base’s old taxiways and hangars and another 100 acre site on land zoned to become a golf course just next door.
Who’s To Blame? Depends on Who You Ask
Many activists in Irvine blame the veteran cemetery breakdown on developer FivePoint Holdings’ repeated suggestion of new sites and its political donations, while some veteran groups lay blame on Councilman Larry Agran.
The developer has spent well over $2 million on Irvine elections since 2015, according to data from the California Secretary of State’s office.
Should the city ever decide to sell the hangar site, FivePoint has first dibs on the property under a deal struck with the city over a decade ago when the developer originally sold the land to the city.
Some of FivePoint’s donations went exclusively to veterans groups, with nearly $1 million going to the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, a group that has lobbied hard against the hangar site for years and led the march out of Irvine.
Nick Berardino, former head of the Orange County Employees Association and the president of VALOR, said their work was mutually beneficial.
“The fact is, we used the support from FivePoint when our interests aligned regarding the strawberry field. Since (2018), I have never spoken to Emile, have received no money or any support,” Berardino said.
Meanwhile, others blame Agran and a cohort of his supporters for holding up the process, saying the hangar site is an unrealistic dream that will never be built to their vision.
Bill Cook, one of the veteran’s alliance board members and chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, said the primary reason veterans partnered with the developer is because they feared the cemetery would never be built at the hangar site, and the only reason it stayed in consideration was to derail FivePoint’s plans for the site.
“FivePoint was offering to build our veterans cemetery, which was our compensation. In exchange, we formed an organization to counter Larry Agran’s publicity and that costs money, and FivePoint was willing to stand with us,” Cook said. “It was being paid for by a developer, it met everyone’s criteria except Larry Agran.”
According to campaign finance data, Agran provides most of Build The Veterans Memorial Park And Cemetery’s funding, investing over $170,000 since 2017 along with another $221,000 from Irvine Community News and Views, a publication he owns a four percent stake in that has regularly praised his work on the city council and the veterans cemetery issue.
Agran said he believes the hangar site is the best location for a cemetery in Orange County and veterans fighting against the location were “bamboozled,” by FivePoint for the developer’s benefit.
“It’s unbelievable the lengths to which FivePoint and their allies have gone to see to it there is no veterans cemetery…on the (hangar) site. Why? Because they covet that site for their own purposes and profit,” Agran said. “But ultimately, I think they will fail because they’re going against the will of the people of the city of Irvine.”
He added that no matter where a cemetery is, veterans would express their support for it.
“If you did a poll of veterans outside of Irvine and you asked them about a cemetery at any site, they would say ‘Yeah, we absolutely favor it,’” Agran said. If you ask them would they be good with it at the (hangar) site, they’d say overwhelmingly yes!”
How Did It End Up Here?
Veterans first started talking about a cemetery in Irvine back in 2012, hoping to find a final resting place somewhere on the old Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
At the time, the preferred site by almost everyone was the hangar site, with hopes to convert part of the land into a museum honoring the veterans stationed at the base over its five decades of service.
In 2014, Assemblywoman Sharon-Quirk Silva drafted the first piece of legislation calling for the state government to fund the construction of a cemetery in Orange County.
Six months later, the city council approved the hangar site and then-Governor Jerry Brown came to Orange County in October to celebrate the construction moving forward.
Yet discussions on the cemetery stalled out, with no real funding coming in or talks on how to get the project moving forward while the state studied the hangar site.
“True to form, Irvine said here’s your site and did nothing after that,” Cook said. “The only thing that kept it alive was the very vocal neighborhoods who didn’t want it near their homes.”
Then a developer stepped in.
Cook said he was introduced to FivePoint Holdings CEO Emile Haddad by then Councilwoman Christina Shea in 2016, and was offered a new choice.
Under the deal, FivePoint would pay for the first phase of the cemetery on a piece of land near the interchange of the 5 and 405 freeways known as the strawberry fields site, and in exchange the developer would get the hangar site with development rights.
After two years of arguing over whether or not to move forward with a land swap, Irvine voters shot down the exchange on the 2018 ballot, with over 62% of the vote against the new site.
The city then turned to 100 acres in the Great Park next to the hangar site set to become a golf course, and FivePoint agreed to put forward $28 million toward the construction if the cemetery went to that site.
The city has been deadlocked between the hangar and golf course sites ever since, shifting between the two in marathon city council meetings that never led to any tangible results as both sites sit untouched.
Following the breakdown in Irvine, much of the effort is shifting to a piece of county land at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim, as county supervisors pledge support to study the site and figure out if it can be veterans’ final resting place.
The land is already set to become a public cemetery and has been considered as a possible location for veterans before, but a new coalition of veterans groups calling for a study of the site represents its first step forward in years.
“Since the strawberry field went down, it’s just been a matter of letting this thing gestate out to the bitter end. It’s like waiting out after a bad meal, we’re done.”Bill Cook, one of the veteran’s alliance board members and chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation
When asked about the process, Berardino called the treatment of veterans in Orange County “womb to tomb abuse,” and while he thanked politicians and groups supporting the shift to Gypsum, he said if veterans failed to get a cemetery it would be the legacy of Irvine politicians and a lack of community support.
“I went into this believing people would support veterans and not be so self serving, self interested and watching their own political rear ends. That was a mistake,” Berardino said. “But it’s been a blessing cause its given veterans voice, a large voice, and they’ll never make that mistake again. They know who their friends are, and who they’re not.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.