Following the 10-year fight over a veterans cemetery in Irvine, city leaders could now be heading into another battle over what to do with 125 acres of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

The odds of building a state-run veterans cemetery in Irvine have dropped to virtually zero after every city in Orange County – including Irvine – endorsed the Gypsum Canyon site in Anaheim.

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

Irvine City Council members held a strong debate over how to handle over 125 acres of public land in the city’s Great Park last Tuesday, discussing whether to move forward with a veterans memorial or a botanical garden. 

The land in question holds old hangars, barracks, portions of taxiways and an air traffic control tower from the old air station and was once set to become the county’s first state veterans cemetery, and has been caught up in a quagmire of local politics over the last decade.

Councilwoman Tammy Kim has been the loudest proponent of placing a botanical garden at the site, following up on a nearly two decade old promise that the park would eventually include a botanical garden, putting forward a motion last month to examine the hangar site as the potential home of that garden. 

“We have to be clear we all want the same thing here-we want to put the park back into the Great Park,” Kim said at the meeting. 

But another councilmember has different ideas for that land, and he’s not being quiet about his disagreement.  

Councilman Larry Agran has been a longtime advocate for a veterans memorial and/or cemetery at the hangar site over all others, including writing a ballot measure the city council adopted in 2020 that required the land be used as a cemetery. 

[Read: Irvine City Council Approves Voter Veterans Cemetery Initiative, Leaves Open Enforceability Questions]

Over the last several months, Agran has been trying to get the council to discuss his plan for the hangar site, which imagines the site as a veterans memorial park featuring a large American flag monument and restoring the dilapidated hangars.. 

At their February meeting, he finally got his wish, but his colleagues weren’t interested in using the entire 125 acres for a memorial and instead promised five acres for the efforts. 

He suggested shifting the plan to allow for a 75-acre parcel of land as a “memorial garden,” for veterans and said Kim’s plan to use nearly all the land shuts down any future cemetery efforts.

“This is not consistent with the will of the people of Irvine,” Agran said at the meeting. “The initiative wasn’t about a 125 acre botanical garden. It simply wasn’t.” 

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Kim fought back against that assertion immediately, accusing Agran of trying to re-politicize the process. 

“Anyone who says this is in opposition or that we’re creating a situation of a veterans memorial competing with a botanical garden is part of the problem,” Kim said. “We all support the initiative of having a veterans memorial component … so to begin to politicize this into something else, this narrative just needs to stop. Right now.” 

Kim’s comments got boos from the crowd at the council meeting, and Mayor Farrah Khan warned them if there were any further interruptions she would ask the public to leave. 

Agran’s no stranger to Great Park controversy. 

He was one of the biggest architects of the early Great Park efforts, which was initially pitched as a $200 million park and has since ballooned to what could be over a billion dollars by the time the park is finished. 

[Read: State Accountancy Board Issues Critical Report of Irvine Great Park Audits]

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During public comment, residents were largely split on the issue. 

Advocates for a botanical garden also raised concerns over this turning into another years-long political fight. 

Teena Spindler, president of the Great Park Garden Coalition that has fought for a botanical garden over the last five years in Irvine, urged the council to select a new site rather than duke it out on the dais. 

“Please council, if Mr. Agran is opposed as he appears to be … I urge the council to choose an alternative 75+ acre site,” Spindler said. “”Please don’t let the botanical garden be delayed for years and years and years over controversy regarding the (hangar) site.” 

Missing from last Tuesday’s public comment period were any of the countywide veterans groups, who’ve been a vocal force in Irvine for years over cemetery discussions. 

Following the mass exodus to the Gypsum Canyon site following a decade of gridlock on the cemetery issue in Irvine, many of the county’s veterans leaders aren’t looking to jump back into Irvine going forward. 

“We’ve certainly moved on,” said Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, in a Wednesday phone call with Voice of OC. “Irvine already has two veterans memorials … (Agran) has no reason to be dragging veterans around anymore.” 

While Agran ultimately voted last Tuesday to move forward with a discussion on the botanical garden, he made it clear that he would be fighting for more than five acres. 

“I promise you, if you’re insistent on any one thing, if I’m insistent on any one thing, if you insist on five acres for a veterans memorial … I’m inclined to think there will be tremendous opposition to that.”

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

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