Wagner, Shea and Fox Vote to give Irvine residents the right to decide fate of the veterans cemetery site
In September, the Irvine City Council approved an agreement to swap 125 acres north of the Great Park that had been formerly designated as a potential cemetery site for the same amount of property near the freeway. Veterans and their families have long been asking for a cemetery in Orange County to help relieve a lack of military gravesites in Southern California. At a moving ceremony in late October, more than 300 veterans, community leaders and one of the largest turnouts of bi-partisan elected officials in recent memory, gathered to dedicate and raise military service flags at the new cemetery site.
But opponents of the new site, currently strawberry fields, took to shopping centers and neighborhoods to gather signatures to qualify a referendum on the council’s September decision. They succeeded in obtaining the required number of signatures, following the highly contentious process that included an alleged assault and claims of out-of-state paid petition workers.
On Tuesday night, Mayor Don Wagner and Councilmembers Christina Shea and Melissa Fox fought off a last-minute effort, led by controversial former Mayor Larry Agran, that would derail the cemetery. Instead, the council majority voted to let residents decide the fate of the new cemetery by putting the referendum on the June ballot.
“I have no doubt that when all the facts are out there, this council’s (earlier) decision will be ringingly affirmed,” Wagner predicted.
Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation that designated the strawberry fields site for the cemetery and allocated $5 million to begin the pre-application process. In September, the council approved a zone change that set up the process to transfer the land to the state, which ultimately will build and maintain the cemetery.
Critics of the referendum have pointed out that should the voters reverse the decision of the council there will be no designated cemetery site.
“The stakes are extremely high,” said Bill Cook, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation. “Should the voters be duped into voting no on the zone change it will end the long-held dream of finally delivering a sorely needed veterans cemetery. It would be a very sad day.”