While veteran leaders in Orange County have celebrated what looks like the end of a decade-long fight to find a spot for a veterans cemetery close to home, a new legislative battle is brewing in Sacramento with two powerful local Democrats sponsoring two competing bills to get the state onboard with the new site.
Last October, Irvine became the last of the county’s 34 cities to endorse building a veterans cemetery on a piece of county owned land in Gypsum Canyon, largely ending debate on other sites with county supervisors joining city leaders and committing $20 million to a site already owned by the County of Orange, currently zoned as institutional open space with a public cemetery already planned.
But there was one key legislator who hadn’t jumped onboard yet.
As sponsor of the current legislative proposal for a OC veterans cemetery, slated for Irvine, Democratic State Senator Tom Umberg seemingly held the bill with keys to the next part of the project, opening the pipeline to state and federal tax dollars to get the show on the road.
Umberg’s bill would decide which sites could or couldn’t be studied in Orange County for a potential veterans cemetery.
And for months it looked like he wouldn’t open the door for a study at Gypsum Canyon as he stood fast to push for a site in Irvine.
But in December, after veterans leaders got every veteran group, followed by county supervisors and all 34 city councils across Orange County to endorse Gypsum Canyon, Umberg announced he would be changing his bill to allow for a potential cemetery there.
Yet Umberg says formally changing the site location from Irvine to Gypsum Canyon are changes that won’t likely get discussed until March at the earliest by the state assembly.
Yet this week, rather than wait on Umberg’s bill, fellow Democrat Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva and Republican Assemblyman Steven Choi swooped in with their own bill that would start the ball rolling in the state assembly, with Quirk-Silva saying they just got tired of waiting.
“It’s not anything aggressive or anything like that, we just didn’t want to wait any longer. We wanted this to get done,” Quirk-Silva said in a phone call with Voice of OC on Wednesday morning. “We want to get this done so we can get to the next step.”
Quirk-Silva was one of the early leaders on the veterans cemetery, writing the original legislation in 2014 that paved the way for the cemetery at the state level.
But Umberg’s bill, originally introduced near the end of 2020, has been the main legislative vehicle for the cemetery in recent years.
Umberg claims his bill, which has already been approved by the state senate and is awaiting discussion in the assembly, can move faster than their new bill because it’s already in the pipeline.
“(The new bill) probably stalls the whole effort,” Umberg said. “We’re doing what we think will move it forward even more quickly, enabling a CalVet or (Department of General Services) study to be done soon.”
Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and one of the faces of the Gypsum Canyon movement, encouraged all the legislators to work together and do whatever was fastest.
“What’s important is everyone understands the fastest way to get this completed is to cooperate,” Berardino said in a phone call with Voice of OC Wednesday afternoon.
“Cooperation is the vehicle to get this done.”
Both bills open the door for a cemetery in Orange County, with Umberg’s requiring it specifically in Irvine or Anaheim while the new bill allows anywhere “in the county of Orange,” to be considered.
Umberg’s bill also takes a jump toward funding the studies the state requires before it will give the cemetery any money, setting up a new fund that would let any government or private agency contribute toward paying for the state’s study of the Gypsum Canyon site.
Umberg said he included that fund on the recommendation of the Department of Veterans Affairs staff, and that it would help the bill pass quicker because it meant the state wouldn’t be paying for the study.
The actual question of how much the cemetery or the studies will cost is still up in the air, with no official estimates released yet.
At an event last month raising flags at the Gypsum Canyon site, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told reporters “it’s going to be a very expensive project to complete,” estimating the final price tag could come around $100 million.
The county government is in the midst of completing their own study at the site, with supervisors committing $20 million to the project, while state agencies have yet to begin reviewing the Gypsum Canyon site.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that State Senator Umberg’s district included the city of Irvine when the 34th senate district limits end just outside the city. We regret the error.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.