A veterans cemetery in Orange County is one step closer today after state legislators approved legislation that would provide a final resting place for area veterans who for many years have had to drive hours outside county lines to be buried in a veterans cemetery.
The issue that’s reverberated through Orange County for over a decade now sits on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk waiting on his approval.
The bill is the first step toward getting a state veterans cemetery built on a piece of county owned land at Gypsum Canyon in the Anaheim Hills, a site which nearly every elected official and veterans group in Orange County has endorsed.
“We are thankful to everyone who has worked so hard to achieve this legislative success,” said Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County and one of the leaders of the veterans coalition that lobbied for Gypsum Canyon. “Governor Newsom has been a strong and stellar supporter of California veterans, and we are anxious for his opportunity to sign the bill.”
The cemetery was originally slated to be built on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine, but after nearly a decade of debate by city leaders stalled the project, many veterans began looking for another option.
After getting an endorsement from every other city council in Orange County, they brought the proposed Gypsum Canyon site before the Irvine City Council, where city leaders formally renounced their hopes to build a veterans cemetery and gave their blessing to take it out of the city.
But in order to move forward at Gypsum Canyon, veterans needed the state to study the site, which requires approval by the state legislature.
The process was initially held up, with State Senator Tom Umberg and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva introducing competing bills at the start of 2022 that were unified in June.
After the Senate approved the bill on Wednesday night, the Assembly approved their edits on Thursday morning.
Quirk-Silva, who introduced the original legislation for the cemetery in 2014, said “it was a lot of emotion,” to see it heading to Newsom’s desk.
“This has taken a lot of time but slow and steady wins the race,” Quirk-Silva said in an interview with Voice of OC. “We’re confident (Newsom) will support.”
While the bill leaves an Irvine site open as a potential future option, it also opens up Gypsum Canyon for consideration or any future site that county leaders decide on as long as the land is reviewed by the state first.
At this point, the biggest voice left still calling for the cemetery to go on the former base is Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, who has objected frequently to his colleagues’ new plans to build a botanical garden at the proposed site and has shared worries the city could be sued over it.
The bill also creates the Southern California Veterans Cemetery Study Donation Fund, a new account for any “local governmental entity or private organization,” to help fund the state’s study of the land, with any excess funds returned to the donor.
That study will provide the first official price tag for what it would cost to develop the site, and list potential design options and recommendations from state staff.
So far, the site has picked up $20 million in funding from the county supervisors, which would fully fund the study by the California Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of General Services and help fund the construction of the cemetery further down the road.
Similar studies performed in Irvine at multiple sites took around a year to complete.
The governor’s press office did not respond to requests for comment.
Noah Bieisiada 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.