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A series of veterans groups on Thursday gathered around an iconic open space tract called Gypsum Canyon, near the intersection of the 241 toll road and Interstate 91, looking on as county supervisors announced plans to enter the long running struggle to set up a veterans cemetery in Orange County.

The new site opens up a host of questions for county, state and federal officials, including what happens to a pot of almost $25 million in state budget funds – currently slated for a veterans cemetery in Irvine but now under pressure to be changed to just Orange County, which would make the Gypsum Canyon site eligible.  

Local leaders are also hoping to receive as much as $10 million from the federal government toward construction of the cemetery. While a cemetery site in Orange County has been on the radar of the US Department of Veterans Affairs for years, it has been low on the priority list due to an inability to pick a site. 

Moving to Gypsum Canyon

The shift to Gypsum Canyon site comes after almost a decade of fighting in Irvine that never led to any tangible results, a fact multiple speakers at Thursday’s event kept pointing out. 

Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and one of the loudest voices leading the charge out of Irvine, spoke about the years of political quagmire in Irvine and praised efforts to move siting of a veterans cemetery to Gypsum Canyon. 

Nick Bernardino, President of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, speaks at the July 1 Veterans Cemetery media event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“We have been virtually kicked off all three sites by one group or another,” Berardino said. “In Vietnam we used to say ‘When we die and go to heaven, St. Peter we will tell another veteran reporting sir, I’ve served my time in hell.’ I used to think that applied to Vietnam until I tried to get a cemetery in Irvine!” 

Nick Berardino, President of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County

Anaheim Councilman Trevor O’Neil jumped on Berardino’s remark, thanking Irvine for failing. 

“Thank you…to the city of Irvine for not reaching a consensus on either one of your proposed sites,” O’Neil said to laughs from the crowd. “Today, Anaheim is open to our veterans.” 

Irvine’s Veterans Cemetery Debate

The Irvine City Council selected a site for a veterans cemetery back at the Orange County Great Park in 2014  but since then the city has continued arguing over the final location, resulting in two ballot initiatives, three different sites and over a million dollars in taxpayer money spent. 

For the last four years, the city has been stuck on a debate between two sites at the Great Park, with different groups of voters protesting them for different reasons. 

Some blame developer FivePoint Holdings for complicating the process in a bid to take over the largest proposed site at the Great Park, while others point to political infighting that squashed the project before it ever had a chance to get off the ground. 

[Read: How Did Irvine Fail to Build a Veterans Cemetery After Nearly a Decade of Debate?

Last month, the city council openly encouraged veterans to seek opportunities outside the city following a marathon meeting where residents protested against all the sites offered at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. 

Bill Cook, a Marine veteran who flew out of El Toro to Vietnam, is one of the original leaders of putting a veterans cemetery in Irvine since the late 1990s, founding the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation. 

Earlier this year, Cook publicly threw up his hands about Irvine and said he was leaving the effort, tired of the inability of city leaders to forge consensus around a site. 

Cook then shifted his focus to the Gypsum Canyon site. 

Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, speaks at the July 1 Veterans Cemetery media event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“I can tell you almost universally, (veteran’s) opinion (of Irvine) ranges from negative to hostile,” Cook said at the Irvine council’s last meeting.  “You have kept this issue captive for nearly a decade.”

Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation

Now, county leaders have responded to calls from veteran groups and are looking at setting aside 100 acres in Gypsum Canyon for a veterans cemetery, part of a 200-acre parcel set to become a public cemetery. 

Who is Supporting the New Site?

Every VFW post in Orange County and almost every American Legion post have signed on to support the Gypsum Canyon site, along with the Orange County Veterans And Military Family Collaborative and just over half a dozen other Southern California veterans groups. 

While the site had been suggested as a final resting place for veterans before, this is the first site outside Irvine to gain momentum in years. 

The Orange County Board of Supervisors sit in the front row of the Veterans Cemetery press conference led by supervisor Don Wagner. From left, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, Supervisor Katrina Foley, Supervisor Doug Chafee and Supervisor Andrew Do. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

County Supervisor Don Wagner hosted the event, with the rest of the board of supervisors in attendance along with district attorney Todd Spitzer, who secured the needed county approvals for a veterans cemetery back in 2018 when he was a county supervisor representing the district where the site is located.

Supervisor Don Wagner during his remarks at the Veterans Cemetery Media event at Gypsum Canyon on July 1, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A host of city council members from the cities of Lake Forest, Irvine, Anaheim and representatives from multiple congressional and state officials also attended the event. 

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

What’s it Take to Build a Veterans Cemetery?

It remains unknown how much the Gypsum Canyon site will cost. 

Wagner said county staff were working on estimates, but they weren’t ready to release any numbers. 

When asked, Wagner said he wouldn’t be against investing county money in the project, but needed to know more before committing. 

“I would support finding county funds, if it’s the right amount from the right budget,” Wagner said. “I’m not going to say no to any particular source of county funding at this point…it’s too early to say.” 

Supervisor Katrina Foley said she wanted to invest county dollars in the cemetery, calling on every level of government to chip in and make it happen. 

“I think we have to pool our resources,” Foley said. “Everyone has to put in.” 

Opposition to the Gypsum Canyon Site

A handful of Irvine residents who want the cemetery back in their city also came to the event, pointing out how Irvine voters were promised a cemetery through the multiple ballot initiatives put through at the city level. 

They also brought up concerns of FivePoint Holdings, a developer in the city, buying up the land not used for a cemetery and turning it into commercial buildings. 

“It’s a total absurdity,” said Harvey Liss, a former Irvine planning commissioner and a longtime supporter of a site that holds El Toro’s hangars and air traffic control tower. “Irvine supports this…we just need a non-FivePoint city council.” 

Some also took aim at Irvine Council members Mike Carroll and Tammy Kim attending the event endorsing the Anaheim site, asking why they hadn’t delivered a cemetery for their voters. 

“I support any project that will actually get accomplished,” Carroll said when asked after the event. “This is a great day for the veterans of Orange County and a sad day for Larry Agran.”

Two veterans sit in the back of a jeep during a tour of the Gypsum Canyon site, which rests between the 91 and 241 toll road. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Irvine Councilman Larry Agran has been the loudest voice on the Irvine City Council calling for a cemetery in Irvine at the hangar site. 

Agran has repeatedly pointed out Irvine’s commitment to a cemetery and the city’s zoning law holding the hangar site for a cemetery, which nearly 20,000 residents brought on a ballot initiative to the council when they approved it last year. 

“This is a wonderful project that should come to fruition and we must not allow a developer and their allies to frustrate and defeat the will of the people of the city of Irvine,” Agran said in an interview last Wednesday before the Gypsum Canyon event.  

The concerns over Irvine residents still calling for a cemetery were dismissed by other attendees as well, pointing to the coalition supporting the Gypsum site instead. 

“It’ll fizzle out,” Wagner said. 

Will it Ever Get Built? What Happens Next?

It remains unclear when the supervisors will ultimately take up the cemetery issue, but Wagner says he hopes to see them breaking ground by the end of the year, while making clear that was not a promise. 

In the meantime, the focus now shifts again to Sacramento, which is currently reviewing a piece of legislation from state Senator Tom Umberg that would send support exclusively to a cemetery developed in Irvine.

Veterans and county leaders are calling for the state to instead commission a study of the Gypsum Canyon site and move beyond Irvine altogether. 

But on Saturday, Kev Abazajian, president of the Democrats of Greater Irvine, called on residents to reach out to their state legislators urging them to keep the cemetery in Irvine.

“Irvine voters have repeatedly been absolutely clear…that their preference is for the State Veterans Cemetery to be at the original (hangar) site at the heart of the former El Toro Marine Base,” Abazajian said in a text to Voice of OC Saturday afternoon, referencing the council’s approval of an initiative last year that zoned the hangar site for a cemetery without compelling the council to move forward at that location. “Most residents felt that the May 2020 vote settled the location. And, legally, it did.”

At the same time, residents in the Great Park who live just next door to the proposed cemetery site were calling for the exact opposite, encouraging residents to call state lawmakers and change the designation to anywhere in Orange County.

Those two sides will go head to head this next week, as the State Assembly reviews Umberg’s bill on July 6.

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

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