Unfurling a huge American flag on a hill near the outskirts of Orange County in Gypsum Canyon near the 91 Freeway, a coalition of veterans leaders on Wednesday  – supported by just about every elected official in Orange County – declared victory in a decade-long battle to find a final resting place within county borders.

Veterans, public officials and community members raise shovels to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Gypsum Canyon site. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Just as those veterans were leaving the hills near Anaheim, across town in Irvine, the loudest voice of opposition to the Gypsum Canyon site seemingly threw up a white flag, publicly refocusing efforts from a veterans cemetery to a memorial park at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Simultaneously, State Sen. Tom Umberg sent out a press release Wednesday morning announcing after months in limbo that he would amend his legislation, allowing the Gypsum Canyon to be considered as a cemetery site.

“In a time when a country is divided…a county comes together. We said we’d take this hill, and we ain’t coming off this hill.”

Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County at the flag presentation
Nick Bernardino, one of the leaders of the veterans coalition, speaks at the groundbreaking event in Anaheim Hills on Dec. 8, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The fight over where to put a veterans cemetery in Orange County has raged for nearly a decade, with most of the focus on competing sites throughout the city of Irvine on the site of former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, a base many local veterans served on until it closed in the 1990s. 

But after multiple ballot referendums and four competing sites were put forward, a series of threatened lawsuits from all sides of the fight led a coalition of veterans asking to leave the city behind, a request the city council granted when it refused to recommend a final site to the state last June.

[Read: Irvine Takes No Action on Veterans Cemetery, Opening Door for Possible Anaheim Site]

“We said it’s a win-win for you to walk away,” said Bill Cook, one of the longtime leaders of the veterans cemetery movement. “It was just a crossfire of litigation with veterans in the middle.” 

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

After winning the fight to leave Irvine, a core group of veterans built up a massive coalition,  including over a dozen VFW and American Legion posts throughout Southern California.

A coalition of veterans who have been at the forefront of advocating for a veterans cemetery in Orange County line up and plant a flag on Dec. 8, 2021 in Anaheim Hills. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

They set their sights on a piece of county owned land in Anaheim at Gypsum Canyon. 

The site was first mentioned as a potential cemetery back in 2018 by then supervisor, now DA, Todd Spitzer, but nothing had ever moved forward there. 

With the county’s blessing, that coalition of veterans went out and got letters of support for the new site from every city council in Orange County, ending back in Irvine where the city council formally announced they were throwing in support for Gypsum Canyon. 

[Read: Irvine Endorses Veterans Cemetery in Gypsum Canyon, Ending Yearslong Debate]

But even as debate over the final site is seemingly nearing an end, focus now shifts to the costs of doing a cemetery at this site. 

Supervisor Don Wagner and veteran Bill Cook shake hands at the veterans groundbreaking event in Anaheim Hills on Dec. 8, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In an interview with reporters at the site on Wednesday, County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett noted the unique nature of countywide support for the site, saying the goal of building a veterans cemetery “unites all 34 cities and the County of Orange.”

But Bartlett also warned “it’s going to be expensive,” estimating it could cost as much as $100 million. 

“It’s going to be a very expensive project to complete,” she said, referring to the infrastructure costs – bringing power, sewers and roads into the area. 

County staff are in the middle of studying how much the cemetery will cost, but have not released a final estimate. 

In interviews with reporters on the cemetery site, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu noted that Anaheim is prepared to move quickly with all the necessary approvals to install utilities on the site, promising everything would be approved in the next 90 days. 

But he was also clear the city would not be paying for the new construction, just approving it. 

§

The shift in focus to Gypsum Canyon leaves Irvine in an awkward situation, holding onto a 125 acre parcel of land zoned exclusively for a veterans cemetery that doesn’t appear to be going there. 

Even Larry Agran, an Irvine city councilman and the strongest supporter of a cemetery in the city, has seemingly abandoned hope of a veterans cemetery in Irvine any time in the near future, admitting that even if it were to come up again it would be years from now. 

A 2020 initiative that was put forward by Agran required the city to build the cemetery on a 125 acre parcel at the old El Toro base, and while there’s been an open debate over how enforceable the initiative is, there’s no question it stops anything else from being built there. 

[Read: Irvine City Council Approves Veterans Cemetery Initiative But Leaves Open Questions on Enforceability]

Instead, Agran hosted a press conference on Wednesday showcasing his ideas to replace the cemetery land with a memorial park, which would leave room for a future cemetery should the state choose to build there in the future. 

“(The Gypsum Canyon site) does not preclude our going ahead with the promised veterans memorial park,” Agran said at the briefing, pointing to the ballot initiative’s promise of a “veterans memorial park and cemetery.”  

While a final design for the park is not yet approved, Agran said it would include features like a waterfall, a memorial walk showing the history of the El Toro base, an aviation museum and an American flag mural painted on the leftover airstrip at the site. 

When asked by reporters who would pay for the park and what role the state would play, Agran said he had not yet spoken with the state about whether they would support the park and it was unclear what the final costs to the city would be. 

Agran has been trying to agendize a discussion on the park proposal for over two months, but Irvine’s rules require at least two council members to endorse an item before it can be discussed, and no one else seems interested in signing on. 

§

Another major shift came on Wednesday from state Sen. Tom Umberg, who announced he was expanding his legislation calling for state funding of the cemetery in Irvine to include the Gypsum Canyon site as a possible final location. 

When asked by Voice of OC about the bill back in June, Umberg said he wanted the cemetery built as fast as possible “irrespective of site,” and at the time felt moving through Irvine was the quickest path available. 

“My concern is inertia will kill the veterans cemetery,” Umberg said. “I understand if the city of Irvine doesn’t move forward we need to look at alternate sites, whether (Gypsum Canyon) is one or not I don’t know.” 

Veterans at the event thanked Umberg for coming onboard, pointing to his own experience in the military as a retired US Army Colonel.

“We are grateful that Senator Umberg has joined with the rest of the county,” Berardino said in a phone call with Voice of OC after the event. “This will speed up the project exponentially.” 

The California Department of Veterans Affairs still needs to study the Gypsum Canyon site to determine if they’ll invest money, and how much construction will cost, a process Umberg’s bill opened the door to.  

The flag is raised by veterans, public officials and attendees at the groundbreaking for the Veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills on Dec. 8, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Similar studies at proposed sites in Irvine have taken roughly a year to complete per site, but Berardino believes the study can be completed faster now that so much support is behind a single location. 

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

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.