Irvine City Council votes down proposed land swap for veterans cemetery
The item was placed on the council agenda by Councilwoman Shea, but was opposed by councilmembers Beth Krom, Jeff Lalloway, Lynn Schott and Mayor Steven Choi. The motion to relocate the veterans cemetery site was defeated.
The relocation would have been made possible through a land swap offered by FivePoint, developer of the Great Park Neighborhoods, and many believe it would have helped accelerate the construction of the long awaited veterans cemetery. The 125 acres of land offered on the south side of the park was primarily used for agriculture and would not have require extensive demolition or upgrading before construction of the cemetery could begin.
The proposal to relocate the cemetery was brought to the city council for consideration by the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, a group that has been championing a state-run cemetery for veterans in Orange County. Its chair, Bill Cook, said in a letter to the Irvine City Council that the group is confident the new site would meet all the requirements for a cemetery site.
In her opening remarks, Councilwoman Shea said to a council chamber filled with Irvine residents and veterans, “FivePoint, directed by Haddad, did not bring this proposal forward. It was an idea I brought up because of constraints I understood [concerning the first site] and discussions I have had with veterans over the last several months.
“The [original] site chosen,” said Councilwoman Shea, “was never an ideal site.” Shea pointed to residents’ concerns, adding that there are at least 70 structures and a runway that would need to be removed, as well as cleanup issues. “Costs could go into tens of millions of dollars,” she said.
The new site, while not located within the Great Park boundaries, would still be located on the former MCAS El Toro base, something that several veterans who spoke publicly said was important to them. It was also noted by several people who spoke publicly that another benefit of the relocation would be the visibility that the new veterans cemetery would have from the freeways.
Cook said, “It will be much more viewable and visible by the freeway to announce: ‘This is a veterans cemetery and you’re now in Irvine.’”
“There are no buildings to remove…no mitigation,” Cook said in his statement to the council. “We’d be replacing strawberries instead of runways. It will be a significantly less-expensive site to prepare.”
The July 1 deadline for federal grant requests is approaching, however, and those opposed to relocating the cemetery site said the design planning that began last year with $500,000 in funding from the state is too far along to change now. Doing so, they said, would delay the project from moving forward and require more funding.
Opposed to the motion to relocate the site, former Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran addressed the council, saying that for two years things have progressed on schedule to meet the July 1 deadline for grant submittal.
“Why would we undermine this strategy with talk of a land swap?” Agran asked. “Two years ago we won the key battle to establish the Southern California Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park. We took that hill two years ago. Why would we surrender it now?”
The majority of the 50 people who made public comments at the council meeting disagreed with Agran, however, and spoke in favor of the site relocation, urging the council to approve the land swap.
FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad spoke briefly, saying, “We hope that our offer of the property exchange leads to a win–win–win outcome, for the city of Irvine in its desire to have a cemetery on the previous base, a win for the veterans and for those residents who believe the existing site is incompatible with existing uses.”
“If the veterans are for it, we need to support that,” one woman said.
After public comments, Councilwoman Beth Krom expressed her opposition to the land swap and made a motion that the council reaffirm its original plan and expedite the effort to proceed with the current grant proposal.
A second to Krom’s motion was submitted by Councilman Jeff Lalloway.
Councilwoman Lynn Schott said that she was concerned the change in plan could result in the cemetery not being built.
Mayor Choi said that he wanted to stay the current course but didn’t agree with the need to reaffirm the existing plan as suggested by Krom.