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The idea of hosting a veterans cemetery in Irvine is increasingly losing ground after a key ally of the initiative, state senator Tom Umberg, pulled legislation that would have cemented the city’s position as host. 

Instead, on Monday, Umberg sent out a mass email to just about every group interested in the OC veterans cemetery announcing he was putting his bill on ice until January.

Umberg said he tabled his bill to give a competing site at Gypsum Canyon, currently supported by an overwhelming majority of veterans groups and civic leaders across Orange County, an opportunity for a complete hearing as a potential host before he moves forward with any kind of authorizing legislation.  

“I have decided to postpone the hearing on SB 43 until January 2022.  By then the proponents of the cemetery at Gypsum Canyon will have an opportunity to demonstrate viability.”

State Senator Tom Umberg in an email to cemetery advocates and lawmakers

Irvine has been debating whether or not to host a cemetery for longer than the United States’ involvement in both World Wars combined, a debate that to date has not led to any tangible results, except frustrated veterans and lawmakers alike.  

[Read: How Did Irvine Fail To Build A Veterans Cemetery After Nearly A Decade Of Debate?]

Since 2012, Irvine council members have pinballed between a series of different sites, spending over a million dollars of taxpayer money and leading to two ballot initiatives from the public successfully overturning the council’s decision. 

Veterans have been calling for a state veterans cemetery for years. Many have said they thought they had a strong ally in Irvine, with lots of open land, public money and developer FivePoint, who also promised to pour millions of dollars into construction. 

But after a brief spurt of momentum in the beginning, the project has spent years mired in the referendum politics of Irvine with little progress. 

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Until earlier this year, when veterans groups started publicly disengaging from Irvine and seeking other options, saying it was clear after this long that a cemetery at Irvine’s signature public works project, called the Great Park, just wasn’t a good fit. 

In June, Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, told council members at their regular meeting the city’s decision to “(keep) this issue captive over a decade,” killed any momentum or enthusiasm for the project in Irvine.

At that meeting, Irvine council members openly encouraged veterans to look at sites outside the city at their last meeting, with two council members calling the project a “square peg in a round hole.” 

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a key supporter of the cemetery effort since 2014, is also calling out Irvine for being unwilling to come out and pick a site after a year of promising they would make a decision in June. 

“I can’t even find the right word but it’s unconscionable that we did everything that was asked of us and then it’s just been a ping pong game. The ping pong is now being moved over to another court.”  

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva

Over the last month, a new site at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim is heating up with support from politicians and veterans who have given up on the decade-long dream of giving veterans a final resting place at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. 

[Read: Veterans, County Leaders Rally Around Veterans Cemetery in Gypsum Canyon, Legislative Battle Looms]

Umberg’s bill, which was introduced at the end of last year, would have encouraged the state to focus on building the cemetery exclusively in Irvine, putting up a significant obstacle for the advocates of Gypsum Canyon, and making it clear the Irvine City Council had the final power over site selection. 

The senator has been one of the loudest voices calling for Irvine to pick a final location for months, publicly encouraging the deadlocked city council to make a decision and put an end to the debate.   

In an interview last month on the issue, Umberg called out Irvine delays saying, “I’m a proponent of getting the cemetery built as quickly as possible, irrespective of the site…my concern is inertia will kill the veterans cemetery, inaction will kill this cemetery.” 

Umberg’s legislation drew intense focus heading into the Fourth of July holiday weekend, with advocates on both sides of the cemetery debate calling on the public to reach out to legislators and let them know their preference for a site.

Soon after, Umberg’s bill was pulled. 

Since then, he has not returned requests for comment. 

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The decision to rescind the bill altogether was praised by Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, who saw it as a step in the right direction for the cemetery. 

“Many people helped, but Gov. Newsom played an important role. He took our call, on July 4th, a three day weekend, listened to the concerns of veterans, and led the other supportive legislators,” Berardino said. “We’re going to move forward and we very much appreciate Senator Umberg’s recognition of our desires.” 

Kev Abazajian, chair of the Democrats of Greater Irvine and a long time proponent of a cemetery site in Irvine, said he understood Umberg’s choice to pull the bill after the city council chose not to take any action. 

“It’s up to Irvine to make a decision if it is going to move forward in Irvine. And that may take a change in the council,” Abazajian said. “I think the expectation that people had…was Irvine was going to move forward with a location in Irvine based on what city council members had said for the past year. When that didn’t happen, it kind of threw things up in the air.” 

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But despite nearly universal support at the local level, there are still more questions than answers at the Gypsum Canyon site, with no estimated costs or timelines yet made public. 

At a press conference advertising the site last week, county supervisor Don Wagner said he hoped to see the cemetery breaking ground by the end of the year.  

“Everyone is here saying this is the site, now is the time, let’s get it done,” Wagner said.

Yet Quirk-Silva, who has been dealing with this issue for years, said it’s not a simple process.

The state and federal government still need to review the site and figure out how much they can invest. 

“We have to be very clear what the criteria are, we need a land assessment, and we need to figure out what the future cost will be,” Quirk-Silva said. “There’s still some very basic questions that need answers.”  

For the state to pick up the project, the California Department of Veterans Affairs would need to study the site and come up with a cost analysis, and while Orange County is already on the national waiting list for funding from the federal government there’s no timeline on when those funds come or how much they’ll be. 

“I don’t want to be the squirt gun,” Quirk-Silva warned, “But there’s a lot of steps to take.” 

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

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