Supervisors agree to exploer new site for veterans cemetery outside of Irvine
Prospects for building the long-awaited Southern California Veterans Memorial Park were dealt a blow in early June when Irvine voters rejected Measure B, which would have essentially cleared the way for the cemetery in the city. Passage of the measure would have affirmed a zone change needed to complete a land exchange to locate the cemetery in Irvine adjacent to the Orange County Great Park on a site known as the Strawberry Fields on the former MCAS El Toro base.
Multiple veterans’ groups backed the measure as did both major political parties and scores of elected officials and community leaders. When Measure B failed it immediately raised serious doubts whether the long-promised memorial park would ever be in Irvine, or elsewhere in the county.
But the supervisor’s decision to consider the county site, first proposed by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, was applauded by veterans who attended the board session in Santa Ana on June 26.
“We need a cemetery,” said Nick Berardino, president of VALOR, an advocacy group fighting for a veterans cemetery in Orange County. “When our country asked us to stand up and fight, we fought. We never asked questions, we went. Now, when we came over here today, we could barely walk, most of us are disabled.
“We ask you to now be our heroes,” he implored the supervisors. “We cannot do it without you.”
Procedurally, there was no vote by the supervisors on the issue. Spitzer directed the staff to perform the study, after each supervisor spoke in support of the process, and then thanked the veterans for attending. Most of the veterans at the hearing served in Vietnam.
“I am a direct beneficiary of your sacrifices,” said Supervisor Do, whose family emigrated from Vietnam. “It’s long overdue. We need a veterans cemetery.”
The supervisors revived hope that a much-needed veterans cemetery is still possible in Orange County, which is home to an estimated 130,000 servicemen and women.
Meanwhile, as the county launches its feasibility study of the Anaheim site, Irvine Councilmember Jeffrey Lalloway is expected to introduce a motion at the city council’s July 10 meeting to keep the cemetery in Irvine and relocate it back to the ARDA site. Lalloway, with support from former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, wants to abandon the state-preferred Strawberry Fields site for the cemetery and return to the ARDA site, which is opposed by nearby residents and carries a hefty $77 million price tag to develop.
The ARDA parcel is north of the Great Park and directly across from hundreds of homes and newly built schools. It was first identified in 2014 by city officials for the veterans cemetery. But the council in June 2017 voted in favor of a land exchange with a local developer to move the cemetery several miles away to the Strawberry Fields site. The council’s decision at the time was hailed by a large coalition of veterans, residents, elected officials from both political parties and state officials.
Now, Lalloway is expected to ask the five-member council to reverse its site decision and agree to spend $40 million of Great Park monies to clean up the ARDA parcel. The site was also part of MCAS El Toro but is littered today with dozens of decaying military buildings and infrastructure. If approved, the cleanup cost will deplete the Great Park budget for at least a decade and seriously jeopardize Irvine’s ability to finance construction of the promised public gardens, museums, permanent amphitheater and other amenities at the yet-to-be built Cultural Terrace.
The defeat of Measure B by Irvine voters on June 5 after a contentious campaign was a heartbreaking setback for many veterans who have lobbied local, state and federal officials for years to support and help fund a new cemetery in Irvine. The closest veterans cemetery to Orange County is Riverside, which is quickly reaching capacity. Passage of Measure B was necessary to complete the land exchange ahead of final approvals to build the 125-acre cemetery on the Strawberry Fields parcel, which has been used the last half-century only for agriculture.
Agran and his followers continue to suggest the cemetery site now automatically reverts to the ARDA site with the defeat of the Measure B. The former city mayor personally financed much of the “No on B” campaign effort out of his own pocket and the coffers of his so-called newspaper, Irvine Community News and Views.
Despite Lalloway and Agran’s assertion to the contrary, the Measure B vote does not reverse the city’s designation of the Strawberry Fields site as the preferred site for the cemetery and it does not change the current state law that names the site as the only location in Irvine for a cemetery. In addition, the Measure B vote does not change the fact that, according to the California Department of Veteran Affairs, the cost savings to build the cemetery on the Strawberry Fields site is almost $50 million when compared to the ARDA site.
Officials estimate to build the first phase of the cemetery on the Strawberry Fields is approximately $29 million compared to $77 million on the ARDA site.
Finally, Measure B does not change the fact that only $5 million in public funds have been committed for development of the cemetery in the 2017-18 state budget, and those monies can only be used on Strawberry Fields site under state law.