Vet cemetery swap snub
The Irvine City Council failed to act on a motion to spend 60 days discussing and studying a land swap proposal designed to address citizens’ concerns about the location of the future Southern California Veterans Cemetery in the city.
Advocates, including the veterans group that has long fought for a cemetery on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro base, believe that moving the cemetery from an area with homes and schools would address the concerns of neighbors near the site, and could also save millions of dollars in site preparation and construction, while also speeding up the process of establishing a veterans cemetery.
Those opposed stated concerns that changing course on the previously approved site would jeopardize a political process already underway.
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 chairman, Bill Cook, spoke at the April 12 city council meeting in support of the council taking time to consider the new site, as did some 50 other speakers. But when councilmember Christina Shea, who had put the item on the agenda, made a motion for the 60-day discussion period, there was no second.
Instead, the council voted 3-1 to reaffirm the current site for the cemetery. Councilwoman Christina Shea left the council meeting prior to the vote after a contentious debate in a meeting that lasted five hours.
“I’m not mad at them, just a bit perplexed,” Bill Cook said in the days following the council meeting. “The real surprise to all of us is that they didn’t even consider it. They didn’t vote. They didn’t second. They didn’t even consider a very generous offer that’s going to save someone millions of dollars.”
The relocation proposal was made possible through a land swap offered by FivePoint, developer of the Great Park Neighborhoods. The 125 acres of land offered on the south side of the park was primarily used for agriculture and would not require extensive demolition or upgrading before construction of the cemetery could begin.
In her opening remarks, Councilwoman Shea said to a council chamber filled with Irvine residents and veterans, “FivePoint, directed by [Emile]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.”
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.”
“The [original] site chosen,” said Councilwoman Shea, “was never an ideal site.” Shea pointed to residents’ concerns, adding that there are 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.
According to Irvine city staff reports, the approved cemetery site “contains more than 70 structures, including four hangars that comprise approximately 20,000 square feet each, a former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro control tower and offices, barracks, concrete runways, and asphalt roadways.”
Those structures would have to be removed, at a cost currently being estimated by California Department of Veterans Affairs as part of the process of requesting Federal Veterans Cemetery Grant Funds.
The land offered as an alternative site for the cemetery is currently used for agriculture, “with parcels separated by Serrano Creek (future location of the planned wildlife corridor),” according to city staff reports.
The proposed new site is near the El Toro “Y,” where the 405 and 5 freeways merge, offering visibility that the veterans group says honors the sacrifice of those who served their country.
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.’”
The new site, while not located within the Orange County 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.
“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.”
Those parcels currently used for agriculture won’t always be used in that way, cemetery or no. The FivePoint properties have approved usage that includes 812,000 square feet of lab and office space for research and development uses. City staff reports indicate that use would add an additional 8,461 automobile trips a day to traffic in Irvine and the adjacent area.
Former Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran addressed the council in opposition to the proposal to discuss the potential swap, 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?”
For some, Agran’s use of military analogies in discussing the project was in poor taste.
Veterans say having a cemetery on the former MCAS El Toro base is the crucial element that both sites have. The base is “where thousands of American boys flew off to Vietnam and never came home,” Cook says when discussing the cemetery.
The majority of the 50 Irvine citizens and others who made public comments at the council meeting disagreed with Agran and spoke in favor of the site relocation, urging the council to approve discussion of the land swap. Many were Irvine residents from cultures with strict taboos against living near cemeteries.
“Those of us putting our lives on the line fighting for our country are willing to come home under a flag,” Cook said later, referring to how dead service members are returned to U.S. soil. “But we do not like the idea that we are going to be unwelcome neighbors.”
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.
Councilman Jeff Lalloway submitted a second to Krom’s motion. Councilwoman Lynn Schott said that she was concerned the change in plan could result in the cemetery not being built. Mayor Steven 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.
After the council session, Cook critiqued the primary argument by the majority. “They kept saying that we can’t interrupt the process. That if we make these people [veterans affairs officials] mad, they’ll not let us back in line.
“What a bunch of bull. The Department of Veterans Affairs considers it a priority project. The California Department of Veterans Affairs finds this a priority,” Cook said of the Irvine cemetery. “All it would take is a slight change in the legislation.
“We didn’t see that coming,” Cook said of the reaction to the proposed swap. “We were hoping we would at least have the opportunity to compare the offer that we, as veterans, felt was attractive.
“We’ve been slapped back,” he said. “We plan to take a step back, and take another look at this thing and see if it’s workable. I’m a Marine. We don’t expect easy jobs.”
Still, Cook is diplomatic about the ultimate goal: a California Veterans Cemetery on the former Marine base, at either site.
“We veterans appreciate the support of the city,” Cook concluded. “We appreciate everything they do for us. We’re just flabbergasted they brushed off the proposal.”