Efforts to build Orange County’s first veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills got a major boost Tuesday, with county supervisors approving a $20 million donation for the site at Gypsum Canyon near the 241 and 91 freeways.

The county’s pledge comes after years of political battles in Irvine over different sites, including a ballot measure that overturned a land swap. Most recently, Irvine City Council members abandoned picking a site and encouraged OC veterans to find another location.

“We’ve been trying to get a veterans cemetery, and we’ve been stuck in the quagmire of Irvine all of this century,” said Bill Cook, a board member of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.

Cook said the cemetery will finally move forward with the $20 million commitment from county Supervisors.

“Your contribution will move this cemetery forward. We encourage you to do so,” he said.

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The Anaheim Hills site has strong support from many veterans and elected officials, who said it’s the best hope for actually building a final resting place designated for veterans who served the nation. 

“I’m kind of speechless. This has been a long time coming,” said Nick Berardino, president of the veterans’ alliance.

He added, “We suffered in Irvine … for 10 years, telling us how we can’t do it, why we can’t do it.”

The Anaheim proposal is the latest move since supervisors this month publicly doubled down on their support of the cemetery site in Gypsum Canyon just east of Anaheim Hills, which would move the planned site from former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine.

Much of the former El Toro base is now being developed into neighborhoods and the Great Park by developer FivePoint Holdings.

Opponents of the Anaheim site called it a move to help FivePoint make money off a previous cemetery site in Irvine by developing it.

“We veterans consider this [El Toro hangar] site hallowed ground, because it still has the original runway, control tower and hangars,” said Irvine resident Ed McNew, who helped lead multiple ballot initiatives against the developer’s attempts to shift sites.

A veteran during the pledge of allegiance at the Veterans Cemetery Media event at Gypsum Canyon on July 1, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Unfortunately politics and greed have gotten in the way of getting the veterans cemetery built in Irvine,” he added. “In my opinion, FivePoint wants the 125 acre-site to be developed to housing and a huge commercial [development].”

Berardino said the debates during Irvine City Council meetings led to him and his fellow veteran groups being jeered at.

“We got booed. We got hissed. And just like [when] we came home from the airport in Vietnam, it was really reliving that experience. And, one of the most disgusting experiences,” he said.

Supervisor Don Wagner, whose district includes Irvine and Anaheim Hills, said the El Toro hangar site is the least likely to actually get built, given problems with pollution and other issues.

“That is the site that is least acceptable to the state. It is the site that is least acceptable to the feds. It is the site that is least likely to get us a veterans cemetery anytime soon,” Wagner said.

“This [Anaheim site] gives us a fighting opportunity to get a veterans cemetery that we have been trying for years to get elsewhere,” he added.

“We need to have finality. We can’t let this go on year after year, when the generation that sacrificed – they are growing older in age,” said supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do 

Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the $20 million for the Anaheim site, coming from federal coronavirus recovery dollars.

The money will come from the county’s share of American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus dollars, which the supervisors had designated for filling in lost revenue for existing county services in the general fund.

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After nearly a decade of discussion on the Irvine sites and at least $1 million taxpayer dollars spent, a veterans cemetery is considered unlikely to happen there after city council members recently refused to choose a site and encouraged veterans to seek other options.

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 — who has pushed for the original site for years.

In the background, the Anaheim site is getting support from state legislators like Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine), who requested $5 million in the state budget for the veterans cemetery.

He’s also working on getting the state to redirect $25 million that was previously designated for one of the two Irvine sites to instead go towards the Anaheim site.

Irvine’s Political Battles Over the Cemetery

In Irvine, there have been two competing proposed sites for the cemetery on the former Marine base.

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 have 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 build, while the hangar site is estimated at $110 million.

The proposed Anaheim site is just off the 91 Freeway, on a plot of county owned land already set to become a public cemetery operated by the Orange County Cemetery District.

The Anaheim site has garnered support from a host of different veterans groups in Orange County, including every Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the county and over half a dozen American Legion posts.

Yet it’s still unknown how much it will cost to build the cemetery in Gypsum Canyon because no estimates have been released.  

The effort also picked up signatures from a wide variety of county political figures, including Congressman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), State Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), and county Supervisors Do, Wagner and Katrina Foley. 

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The organizing was spearheaded by Berardino, the former general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, and other leaders like Bill Cook, one of the veteran’s alliance board members and chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.

Both recently announced a coalition of veterans were abandoning any site selection in Irvine ahead of an Irvine City Council vote between two potential sites in that city.

County supervisors said the Anaheim site is the most realistic place to actually get the veterans cemetery built.

“We have the land. We don’t have to argue about it. we have it. And now we’re going to show our support for the cemetery by putting our money where our mouth is,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee.

“We just need to get a final resting place for people – men and women and their families – who have served and sacrificed for our great country,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the Anaheim site will be more expensive, but that’s it’s time to move forward and build the cemetery

“I fully realize that the Gypsum Canyon location is – the terrain is hilly. It’s got some challenges. And it’s going to be more expensive to produce a veterans cemetery there,” Bartlett said.

“But we need to find a location. And we have a location now,” she added. “We’re bigger [in population] than 22 states, and we don’t have a veterans cemetery. And that’s a travesty.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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