Irvine confirms a 100-year commitment to honor American veterans
On Sept. 26, the Irvine City Council approved an exchange of property between the city and FivePoint that immediately dedicates 125 acres of land to the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) to build a state veterans cemetery just south of the Orange County Great Park, on the former El Toro Marine Base.
“Nothing should get in the way of our fundamental commitment to the veterans,” said Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, who brought the matter to the special city council session and opened the meeting with a motion for a full land exchange. Councilmember Christina Shea, who called the decision “historic”, seconded the motion.
The city council voted 3-2 to move forward immediately with the land exchange that will put the cemetery on 125 acres near the 5 and 405 freeways, a site now referred to as the “strawberry fields.”
Voting in favor of the land exchange were Wagner, Shea and Councilmember Melissa Fox.
Councilmembers Jeff Lalloway and Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott voted against the move.
Once the land deed transfer is completed, the city will immediately transfer ownership of the property to the state, under the purview of Cal Vet.
The council’s action, after nearly two hours of testimony, triggered applause among the many veterans who filled the council chambers and wore bright yellow baseball caps with “Southern California Veterans Cemetery” emblems, in a strong show of support for the land exchange.
The land exchange agreement vote followed a city council’s vote in June 2017 to swap land with FivePoint in an acre-for-acre exchange agreement whereby FivePoint/Heritage Fields agreed to exchange the Strawberry Fields land it owns in exchange for city land at the original ARDA veterans cemetery location.
Both sites are 125 acres. The ARDA property was approved as the cemetery site in 2014. Subsequent to that, CalVet estimated a cost of $77 million to build a cemetery at the ARDA site, with $30 million needed to demolish and remove the existing 77 buildings, surrounding concrete and asphalt, and underground utilities at that site.
The strawberry fields site has no buildings or infrastructure of note to be removed. The site was intentionally left vacant during the life of the MCAS El Toro base as an emergency landing zone for aircraft and aviators at the base. Since the base closure, the land use at the site has been limited to agricultural.
At an earlier council session, Councilmember Jeffrey Lalloway and Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott sought to commit $38 million of Irvine city funds toward the ARDA site with the expectation that California state taxpayers would provide the remaining $30 million.
The city council also approved a zone change to transfer already entitled uses at the strawberry field site (812,000 square feet of research and development commercial buildings) to the ARDA location.
There had been some discussion prior to the city council session that, since the 125 acres dedicated to the new cemetery will be utilized in 10 phases over 100 years as veterans are buried there, to explore whether the remaining land could be put to other interim uses. That idea was put to rest at the council session.
“This is a straightforward, simple deal,” Wagner said. “Acre-for-acre, deed-for-deed. No complications. The use will be cemetery, or interim agricultural. No hotel, no new houses. It’s CalVet’s property.”
One of the key proponents speaking in favor of the land swap as the best way to establish a veterans cemetery in Orange County was Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who has shepherded the OC cemetery through numerous votes in Sacramento.
“The cemetery is moving forward,” Quirk-Silva said. “We started down this road together in 2014. This land transfer is an important step to get the project moving forward,” said Quirk-Silva. “The finalization of the land transfer will allow the state to analyze the site, put together an environmental report, and apply for a $10 million federal grant by June.”
“Veterans have served for all of us, and charged bravely into battle without delay, so let us proceed to honor them, and without delay. We have a vision, and if everything goes smoothly, cemetery construction could start as early as October 2018,” said Quirk-Silva. “We will gather there to remember those who served, those who fought, those still missing, and those who gave their measure of devotion for our country.”
The project is on a fast track for the first phase of construction to begin. Vietnam veteran Bill Cook, who is chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation that has been the leading proponent of a veterans cemetery at the former MCAS El Toro, has said that dedication and first burials at the cemetery could occur within 24 months.
The state has already approved a budget of $5.5 million for the construction of the cemetery (down from $30 million needed for the ARDA site). Land developer FivePoint has agreed to spend up to $10 million to help construct the first phase. Added to the $10 million federal VA grant, the total of $25.5 million should fully fund first 25 acre-phase of the cemetery, according to Quirk-Silva. That’s a savings to taxpayers of some $50 million over the $77 million estimated costs to demolish, remediate and prepare the ARDA site.
The entire cemetery will be phased and funded over 100 years, with VA grants expected to provide most of the funds, according to Cook. During that time, the unused land can only be used for agricultural purposes.
The approved veterans cemetery has opponents, led by former Irvine mayor and city councilmember Larry Agran, who spoke at the city council meeting promising lawsuits to prevent the cemetery from moving forward at the approved site.
Agran is a major supporter of the campaign, designed to delay the new cemetery via a costly ballot referendum and petition drive.
The anti-veterans cemetery campaign is designed to reverse the momentum established by the majority of Orange County veterans who support the land transfer and new cemetery site.
The new site is also supported at the city, state and federal level. A return to the $77 million ARDA site would require convincing state legislators and the governor to reverse course and commit $30 million to the ARDA site, rather than the $5 million approved for the strawberry fields site, while also again seeking $38 million from Irvine taxpayers.
Among the misinformation supporting the anti-cemetery campaign is that the ARDA site was a “Great Park Veterans Cemetery,” and the only site on the former MCAS El Toro.
As multiple speakers at the September city council session made clear, both sites are on the base, and neither is currently within the boundaries of the Great Park.
Military veterans who have worked for years toward establishing a cemetery at the base are opposed to the Agran campaign, and angered by its use of veterans and their symbols in it.
Cook points to a photo of a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap used in some of the campaign materials as a particularly objectionable element.
“The VFW is livid,” Cook says. “Use of the cap implies the VFW is in favor of the campaign, which it isn’t and we aren’t.”
“What are they proposing?” Cook asks about the anti-cemetery campaign. “You’re telling me you want to uproot everything that’s going on and we’re going to go back to the ARDA site? Spare me. That can’t be a realistic proposal. What they’re really saying is we’re going to screw this whole thing up so we can’t make it work and the cemetery is dead.”
Irvine City Councilwoman Melissa Fox echoed Cook’s comments in an OC Register story about the referendum: “The petition is a despicable attempt to trick Irvine voters,” Fox said. “The petition’s central lie is the claim that the veterans cemetery needs to be ‘saved.’ The truth is that the cemetery is proceeding at full steam—far faster than would be possible on the original contaminated site. The petition would delay the creation of the veterans cemetery and could even prevent it from being built.”
In the meantime, the preparation for the first phase of the veterans cemetery moves forward. A flag-raising ceremony at the strawberry fields site is planned in time to have the stars and stripes flying over the cemetery site by Veterans Day.
Bill Cook summed up the feelings of veterans when he spoke at the September city council meeting:
“This is your country, that is your flag, we are your veterans,” Cook said. “We look forward to celebrating the groundbreaking of the Southern California Veterans Cemetery with you.”