Irvine Takes Historic Step Forward for Southern California Veterans Cemetery at Former El Toro Marine Base

Wearing yellow Veterans Cemetery groundbreaking caps, dozens of veterans and supporters of the land exchange with FivePoint Communities — in which the City of Irvine will exchange 125 acres north of the Great Park, currently occupied by more than 70 contaminated buildings remaining from the Marine base, with FivePoint’s property just north of the Bake Parkway interchange, currently used as strawberry fields — attended the Irvine City Council meeting on Tuesday, September 26.

For me, coming to support the land exchange was a process that involved carefully studying all the facts.  I needed to be convinced that it would be the quickest way to create the veterans cemetery.  As I investigated the land exchange proposal, I came to see that it was not only the quickest and least expensive path to a veterans cemetery, it was really the only path because of the great cost of decontamination and demolition that would be required on the original ARDA site. I also came to see that opposition to the land exchange was based entirely on hostility to the developer FivePoint, and not at all on what would be best for veterans.

The need for an Orange County Veterans Cemetery is great. Orange County has a long and proud military tradition. Currently, more than two million veterans live in California — more than in any other state. This military tradition continues into the present, as nearly 7,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars live in Orange County.  Yet there is no Orange County military cemetery for the estimated 133,000 Orange County veterans and their families. Those in Orange County who want to visit a veteran’s grave in a cemetery must travel to Riverside, San Diego or Los Angeles counties. The national cemetery in Los Angeles is at capacity and the one in Riverside requires a lengthy wait.

The land exchange came about as a means to overcome the enormous cost of building the cemetery at the originally designed site north of the Great Park.

Although the City of Irvine had offered land, no money was provided to demolish and decontaminate the existing buildings and built the cemetery.

This problem became more acute when the City learned that the Federal Veterans Administration had ranked the Southern California Veterans Cemetery at a mere 74 out of 101 proposed state veteran cemetery projects; that the project was eligible for only $10 million from the federal government; and that the projected the cost of building phase 1 of veterans cemetery was a startling $77,372,000.

Most of this enormous cost involved the decontamination and demolition of 77 buildings remaining on the site, since many of these remaining buildings and facilities “contain hazardous building materials such as asbestos-containing building materials (ACM) and lead-based paint (LBP).”

It appeared that the Southern California Veterans Cemetery that so many of us had fought for so long was not going to get built.

FivePoint Communities,  the developer of the Great Park and the Great Park Neighborhoods, then made the City an offer to exchange 125 acres of land that it owns just south of the Great Park, which it was now using as a field to grow strawberries, for the originally designated cemetery land.  No costly decontamination or demolition would be necessary to begin construction.

In addition, FivePoint offered to pay for the cost of building phase 1 of the veterans cemetery, thus saving the public nearly $80 million as compared to attempting to build the cemetery on the original site.

Like the original site, the strawberry fields site once formed part of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

A recent impartial outside appraisal of the two properties valued the strawberry fields site at $68,000,000, while valuing the original site at only $4,000,000.

The land exchange proposed by FivePoint was supported in letters to the City Council by a formidable and bipartisan array of Orange County elected officials, including Congresswoman Mimi Walters (Republican), Congressman Lou Correa (Democrat), State Senator Josh Newman (Democrat), Assemblymember Steven Choi (Republican), and Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silver (Democrat) — the author of the original Southern California Veterans Cemetery legislation, who also attended the City Council meeting and urged the Council to approve the land exchange as the best way to establish a Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Orange County.

After several hours of public comments, followed by debate by the Irvine City Council, the vote was 3-2 in favor of the land exchange.  Mayor Donald Wagner, Councilmember Christina Shea, and I voted in favor. Councilmembers Jeffrey Lalloway and Lynn Schott voted against.

The vote was met with cheers from most of the crowd, and especially from members of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, which has been advocating for a veterans cemetery in Orange County for many years.

“This is an historic day,” said Bill Cook, a Vietnam War veteran and a leader of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation. ” We see now that we are going to move forward. It is going to be a very monumental site.”

Irvine will immediately donate the land to California so the state can start building the cemetery, which will be the only permitted use. Groundbreaking for the veterans cemetery is expected soon.

As the daughter of an Orange County Korean War combat veteran, and the cousin of a Marine who was killed in action, I strongly support this land exchange that will greatly facilitate making an Orange County veterans cemetery a reality.

I am tremendously proud to have participated in making sure that Orange County’s veterans — who have sacrificed so much for us — will at last have a final resting place close to their families and loved ones.