The decision on which state legislator will spearhead Orange County’s first veterans cemetery could be decided on Tuesday, opening up the next steps in a 10-year effort by veterans to find a final resting place.
While the debate over where a veterans cemetery should go has raged for over a decade, every city in the county endorsed a new site in Gypsum Canyon offered up by the county government after Irvine City Council members renounced any claim to the project last year
The site has also been endorsed by every American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Orange County, the most support any single site has ever had locally.
Since then, efforts to start construction have hit a roadblock in Sacramento.
For months, State Senator Tom Umberg and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva have been pushing separate bills to get the new cemetery site approved by the state legislature, the first step to getting a state study of the land and moving forward with construction.
But the two haven’t been able to work out their disagreements on their competing bills, resulting in a bit of bureaucratic gridlock.
The delay has frustrated many local veterans, who are tired of the gridlock that has followed the cemetery around for years through multiple elections, ballot referendums and dozens of city council votes.
“Ten years stuck in a political crossfire,” said Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, in a speech to a crowd of veterans and politicians at a press conference on Friday. “Yet there are those who would still deny us … every elected official but two have stood with us.”
Berardino’s reference was to Umberg and Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, who was a regular opponent of Berardino’s cemetery site relocation efforts and tried to get the cemetery put at a site in Irvine.
Quirk-Silva’s bill has the most recent activity in the legislature, passing the Assembly floor as well as the Assembly’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee with unanimous approval.
Now, her bill is headed to the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee this Tuesday, a committee Umberg sits on that already voted to approve his cemetery bill last year.
Umberg’s bill was also approved on the floor of the state senate, but hasn’t come up for a vote since May of last year.
While the bills are very similar, Umberg’s creates a set of new fund accounts for the cemetery.
On Friday, Quirk-Silva hosted a news conference alongside representatives from multiple veterans groups and county supervisors Doug Chaffee and Don Wagner calling on the senate to approve her bill.
“We need your help,” Quirk-Silva said to veterans in the audience, asking them to call their representatives and “stop the delays, come together, and get this built.”
Chaffee and Wagner both called for support of Quirk-Silva’s bill, pointing out the $20 million the county has already set aside to help fund the next steps of the project.
“You’re not giving up that hill,” Chaffee said, pointing to the veterans behind him. “We want to see a ribbon cutting.”
Berardino said he thinks a compromise between the two will happen in the near future to keep the effort moving forward.
“We’ve been working hard to reach a compromise … we feel that Tom will stand with the veterans,” Berardino said. “We are confident and optimistic that the committee will not betray the veteran community.”
In an interview after the conference, Quirk-Silva said she’s still working with Umberg to get the bill approved and they were planning on submitting some changes that would bring it more in line with what he wants.
“He’d like to amend some things,” Quirk-Silva said. “We hope he’ll feel they are some steps toward compromising.”
She also confirmed Umberg hadn’t said one way or another how he’d vote on the bill when it’s read on Tuesday.
While Umberg was invited to the Friday press conference, he did not attend, with his staff saying he was at a family reunion out of town.
At their meeting on Tuesday, county supervisors are also talking about moving ahead with new plans for the county cemetery that will run up alongside the veterans cemetery.
The veterans cemetery will be developed alongside a new county cemetery managed by the Orange County Cemetery District, the county’s fourth public cemetery and first new cemetery since 1896 according to a report prepared by the district’s staff.
Two of the county’s three existing cemeteries are out of space, and the El Toro Memorial Park cemetery only has 2,215 casket places remaining as of March 1, 2022, and is expected to run out of space by 2025.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth Initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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.