The People Have Spoken: The Irvine City Council Should Designate the ARDA as the Site for the Orange County Veterans Cemetery. UPDATED!

UPDATE[May 13, 2020] At last night’s Irvine City Council meeting, the Council voted 4-1 to agree with me and to adopt the citizens’ initiative calling for locating a state veterans cemetery at the originally designated ARDA site adjacent to the Great Park on the ground of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS El Toro).  The ARDA is located in the 68th Assembly District.  As the Assemblymember for the 68th Assembly District, I will work to ensure that the state fulfills its promise to “acquire, study, design, develop, construct, and equip a state-owned and state-operated Southern California Veterans Cemetery” on the hallowed grounds of the former El Toro Marine Base.

The time has come to settle the issue of where to locate a state veterans cemetery in Irvine. The people have spoken – twice – on this issue. Accordingly, at the next Irvine City Council meeting, I will propose that the City Council adopt, as an ordinance, the recent citizens’ initiative calling for locating a state veterans cemetery at the originally designated ARDA site adjacent to the Great Park.

Adopting the initiative as an ordinance will finally settle this long-divisive issue in the way that the people of this City have now twice demanded — first, by their overwhelming rejection in 2018 of Measure B and the land exchange, and most recently, by gathering nearly 20,000 signatures expressing the residents’ desire to locate the veterans cemetery on the ARDA.

Adopting the citizen’s initiative as an ordinance would also allow construction of the much-needed Orange County State Veterans Cemetery to begin as early as possible without any further political delays.

I have been fighting for a veterans cemetery on the hallowed grounds of the former El Toro Marine Air Station for many years, beginning in 2013, long before I was elected to the City Council.  As I wrote to the Irvine City Council in early 2014:

Melissa Fox in May 2014 urging the Irvine City Council to fulfill its promise to create an Orange County Veterans Cemetery without delay.

“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 Orange County veterans do not have their own official military cemetery and those in Orange County who want to visit a veteran’s grave in a national cemetery must travel to Riverside, San Diego or Los Angeles counties. It is time that Orange County offered its veterans – who have sacrificed so much for us – a final resting place close to their families and loved ones. I believe that a portion of the Great Park in Irvine, which was once the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, would be an altogether fitting and proper location for this Orange County Veterans Cemetery, as well as a lasting memorial to the Great Park’s military heritage. As an Irvine resident and a member of the Irvine Community Services Commission – and as the daughter of an Orange County Korean War combat veteran – I urge you to create an Orange County Veterans Cemetery and, also, to locate this cemetery in a portion of the Great Park that was once the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.”

Control Tower of MCAS El Toro, still visible on the ARDA site.

On March 11, 2014, I cheered with others in the audience when the City Council unanimously voted to designate the Amended and Restated Development Agreement [ARDA] site in the Orange County Great Park in Irvine as the future site of a veterans cemetery. But when I became an Irvine City Councilmember in 2016, I learned that there had been no progress on a veterans cemetery in the intervening two years. The reason for this lack of progress, I was informed, was the high cost of the decontamination and demolition necessary on the ARDA site.

Marine Corps A4 Skyhawks in flight over El Toro, 1961

Because construction of a veterans cemetery at the ARDA site did not appear to be financially viable for the City of Irvine, I supported the Strawberry Fields site (and the land exchange with FivePoint) as a less expensive, more practical, and faster alternative to the ARDA site. This land exchange proposal became Measure B, which was placed on the ballot for the voters in June 2018. The land exchange was supported by the Orange County Veteran’s Memorial Park Foundation and many national and local veterans organizations, as well as both the Democratic and Republican Parties of Orange County. 

The voters, however, decisively rejected Measure B and the land exchange, with 63 percent opposed. I understood from the defeat of Measure B that Irvine residents did not trust the City Council to put the people’s interests ahead of the interests of Irvine’s powerful developers, and, specifically, did not want to risk the possibility that the land exchange with FivePoint that would lead to massive development and more traffic congestion.

MCAS El Toro patch, designed by Walt Disney.

Following the voters’ rejection of Measure B, it again seemed that the construction of a veterans cemetery at the Great Park had stalled. However, several members of the California State Legislature continued to look for a way to create an Orange County Veterans Cemetery on the grounds of the former El Toro Marine Base.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who taken the lead in earlier legislation regarding an Orange County Veterans Cemetery, introduced Assembly Bill 368, which requires the California Department of Veterans Affairs toJoining Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva (AD 65) in support of this bill was a bipartisan group of Orange County legislators, including Republican Assemblymembers Tyler Diep (AD 72), William Brough (AD 73) and Philip Chen (AD 55), as well as Democrats Senator Thomas J. Umberg (SD 34) and Assemblymember Tom Daily (AD 69).  These legislators wrote to the Irvine City Council stating, “Today, we are ready to work with State and Federal officials to secure funding for the Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery.  We ask that you stand by your previous commitment to provide a resting place for California veterans at the ARDA site.”

Most important to me, this legislation committed the State of California, rather than the residents of Irvine, to provide the funding for the veterans cemetery. Initially, the legislation specified state financial support only for the ARDA site. After pressure from FivePoint and Mayor Christina Shea, the bill was amended to apply to either the ARDA site or a new site now proposed by Mayor Christina Shea and developer FivePoint. This newly proposed site was called the “Golf Course” site because it was comprised, in part, of land in the Great Park that had originally been designated to become a city-run golf course. However, the new site also included land that had previously been designated as part of the Orange County Great Park’s long-awaited “Cultural Terrace,” meant to include museums, botanical gardens, and other very popular cultural amenities that the people of Orange County had been waiting for a very long time. 

WW2 Era Marine aviators at MCAS El Toro.

Crucially, this new and hastily unveiled “Golf Course” site has never been studied or evaluated – by either the City or the State — for use as a veterans cemetery. As a result, the claims of FivePoint and Mayor Shea that the Golf Course site is a significantly less costly alternative to the ARDA are wholly conjectural. The truth is, since we have not actually studied the question, we have no idea whether locating the veterans cemetery on the Golf Course site rather than the ARDA would save a penny for the taxpayers.

We do know, however, that FivePoint very much wants to develop the ARDA site. Of course, this development of the ARDA site by FivePoint can not happen if the ARDA becomes a veterans cemetery.

We also know that Mayor Shea very much wants FivePoint to be able to develop the ARDA. In fact, when discussing this new alternative site with a group of Great Park residents, Mayor Shea stated that her plan was to give FivePoint a 99-year lease for development on the ARDA. Mayor Shea further said that Golf Course site was really a “diversion” or “short-time solution” to buy time and ensure that the ARDA did not become a veterans cemetery. She made it clear that to her, whether a veterans cemetery was actually built on the Golf Course site – or anywhere in Irvine — was secondary to making sure that the ARDA site remained available for development by FivePoint. In other words, Mayor Shea and FivePoint still intended to do precisely what the voters in defeating Measure B had specifically rejected.

Marine Corps Air Station El Toro Air Show Poster, 1991

For these reasons, when it again came before the City Council in April 2019, I supported designation of the ARDA as the site for a veterans cemetery, for the State of California to “acquire, study, design, develop, construct, and equip a state-owned and state-operated Southern California Veterans Cemetery” on the grounds of the former El Toro Marine Base. Nevertheless, the Irvine City Council rejected the ARDA and designated the Golf Course site for a veterans cemetery by a vote of 4 to 1, with only myself opposed.

The citizens’ initiative drive followed. Advocates for the ARDA site were able to collect nearly 20,000 signatures of Irvine residents to force the City Council to locate the veterans cemetery at the ARDA or place the issue on the ballot in November 2020.

I have never approached this issue from a partisan perspective, or with concern for anything but properly honoring O.C. veterans like my father. My sole concern now — as it has been from the beginning of this effort — is doing whatever I can to ensure that an Orange County Veterans Cemetery becomes a reality.

My criteria for deciding where to locate the veterans cemetery has also remained consistent: I support the site that I believe is most viable, most likely to be completed, and at the least cost to Irvine taxpayers. That site is the ARDA.

Our veterans deserve a final resting place close to their families and loved ones. Veterans like my father have waited long enough for Irvine to do the right thing.

Let’s build an Orange County Veterans Cemetery at the ARDA without further unnecessary delay.

Let’s listen to the people.