After hours of debate, Irvine endorsed a new site for an Orange County veterans cemetery in Gypsum Canyon, becoming the last city in the county to officially support the new site after years of disputes.
The debate over an Orange County veterans cemetery has raged for nearly a decade, with efforts to find veterans a final resting place on a portion of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine.
But after those discussions collapsed for the fourth time earlier this year, veterans changed focus and got approval from the Orange County Board of Supervisors to pursue a cemetery on county owned land at Gypsum Canyon.
Over the last four months, proponents of the Gypsum Canyon site have gotten statements of support from every other city council in Orange County, along with the county Board of Supervisors and multiple state and federal officials.
While most of the focus on the cemetery left Irvine months ago, the city never officially voted to abandon the project or to support the new site in Anaheim.
The council’s last discussion failed to reach a consensus vote on any issue, and council members openly encouraged veterans to seek other options.
The city council voted 4-1 to support the Gypsum site, with Councilman Larry Agran as the lone dissenting vote in the entire county against the proposal.
Agran has been a longtime supporter of putting the cemetery on 125 acres of land at the north edge of the city’s Great Park, leading multiple ballot initiatives zoning the site for a cemetery amid concerns that the land would be sold to developer FivePoint if it wasn’t used for the cemetery.
“On May 20, 2012, the city council of the city of Irvine adopted a citizen initiative to place the veterans cemetery in Irvine, state funded cemetery in Irvine, at the (hangar) site,” Agran said in his opening remarks. “A lot has gone on since that got adopted. It is the law of the city of Irvine, it can’t be changed by resolution or otherwise by this council.”
While the rest of the council thanked Agran for his work on the cemetery, they pleaded with him to abandon the effort and support the Gypsum Canyon site, promising the land would not be turned over to FivePoint or any other developer.
“Councilmember Agran please, please join me in seeing what could be possible. We will not give it to developers. Let’s hold hands and see this through,” said Councilwoman Tammy Kim. “This isn’t’ about politics … this is about our veterans.”
Before the council vote, dozens of people came out to speak during public comment on both sides of the debate, with the majority of speakers asking for the council to move to Gypsum Canyon.
The council chambers were split down the middle, with advocates sitting on opposite sides of the room.
The discussion broke down multiple times, with multiple interruptions from proponents in the crowd and multiple times where Mayor Farrah Khan pointed speakers to the exit.
One veteran in support of the Irvine site specifically called out Tammy Kim, who immigrated to the US as an infant from South Korea, asking how she felt about the Americans who died in the Korean War.
“You came from South Korea,” the commenter said. “How do you feel about the 36,574 who died trying to save your country for freedom?”
Kim interrupted his comments, yelling “This is my country, I am an American!”
The commenter replied “You’re American because you were lucky enough to live to get here.”
After that comment, the council shut off the man’s microphone, as Khan and Councilman Mike Carroll both chastised the commenter for bringing up Kim’s history.
“How dare you sir! Why don’t you come down here and express your citizenship credentials?” Carroll said. “You must hear this sir. You are not Irvine.”
Khan told the remaining public commenters that if they were disrespectful their time would be cut short.
“It looks like you’re going to lose this one,” Carroll said to Agran after they heard from public commenters endorsing the shift. “Please put the past behind you … Your vote no tonight is equivalent to you just being small about the whole issue.”
“Tell the people on this side of the house that it’s over.”
Agran proposed an alternative motion that would have also jump-started construction of a memorial park at the Irvine site, but he failed to gain any traction with his colleagues.
When asked about Agran’s effort to break ground on the memorial park, Nick Berardino, leader of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and the chief proponent of the Gypsum site, said their focus needs to be on the cemetery.
“We’ll focus on (Gypsum), and when that’s done, then it’s time to talk about other things. But right now the county has made a decision. That’s what we need to focus on,” Berardino said in a Tuesday phone interview after the vote.
“It’s time to move on. It’s time to heal. It’s time for all of us to join hands and make the Gypsum Canyon a reality for all the veterans in Orange County. Make the dream come true.”
This article was updated on Oct. 28 to clarify the interaction between Councilmember Tammy Kim and a public commenter.