Once again, we must fight to ensure that a Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Irvine becomes a reality.
All of us must tell the Irvine City Council, “No back room deals! Keep your promises to our veterans!”
Here are the facts:
Ever since the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro (MCAS El Toro) in Irvine was decommissioned in 1999, a growing number of veterans dreamed of locating a veteran’s cemetery and memorial on a portion of the closed base, where an estimated 2 million men and women served this nation in peace and war, and from which too many of them departed to foreign lands never to return.
These veterans formed the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation to advocate for an Orange County veterans cemetery.
The need 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.
In 2014, Assembly Bill 1453 (AB 1453) was introduced by Assemblymember Quirk-Silva in the California legislature to establish a Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Orange County.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Assemblymember Donald Wagner representing the City of Irvine, was approved by the state legislature as of August 25, and signed by Governor Brown on September 27, 2014.
On July 22, 2014, after several months of debate and hearings, and appeals from numerous veterans and veterans’ organizations, the Irvine City Council adopted a resolution expressing its intent to convey the Amended and Restated Development Agreement (ARDA) site, just north of the Great Park and on land that was formally part of former MCAS El Toro, consisting of 125 acres, to the state for the purposes of creating the Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery.
I had spoken at City Council meetings numerous times in favor of this resolution, as had my father, a Korean War combat veteran.
We were thrilled that the City Council had approved providing 125 acres of City-owned land for the veterans cemetery. While we knew that the City Council had not approved spending any money for the cemetery, our expectation, as well as that of the Irvine City Council, was that once the land was provided, sufficient funds to build and maintain the cemetery would come from the federal government and the State of California.
Over the next year and a half or so, very little was done to move the project forward, as both the state and federal government considered the matter.
Then in June 2016, the City received a disheartening report from California Department of General Services that projected the cost of Phase 1 of building the veterans cemetery at the ARDA site to be a startling $77,372,000.
Most of this enormous cost involved the decontamination and demolition of 77 buildings (both residential and non-residential) remaining on the site. The report noted that many of these remaining buildings and facilities “contain hazardous building materials such as asbestos-containing building materials (ACM) and lead-based paint (LBP).”
More bad news followed.
On July 25, 2016, 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, and that the project was eligible for only $10 million from the federal government.
In other words, we learned that there was a $67,372,000 shortfall between what the cemetery would cost and what the federal government was willing to contribute. Moreover, no state funding was promised.
It appeared that the Southern California Veterans Cemetery that so many of us had long fought for was not going to get built.
During this time, FivePoint, the developer of the Great Park and the Great Park Neighborhoods, 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 ARDA land.
The City could then provide this Strawberry Field land to the State of California for a veterans cemetery, rather than the ARDA site.
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 ARDA site.
Still, there remained some uncertainty about the details of FivePoint’s offer.
Based on these financial facts and FivePoint’s offer, the City Council voted on April 4, 2017, to adopt my motion to pursue a dual track option of telling the Governor’s office, CalVet, and the State Legislature, that the City would guarantee local funding of up to $40 million, and, simultaneously, to direct staff to clarify and nail down the details of FivePoint’s land exchange, which could expedite the creation of the cemetery and save the City millions of taxpayer dollars that could then be used for other purposes, including construction of the Cultural Terrace and other amenities at the Great Park.
On May 12, 2017, Governor Brown toured both of the sites proposed for a veterans cemetery on the former El Toro Marine base After his tour, Brown said either site was acceptable to the state. “It’s absolutely certain that Orange County will get the veterans cemetery that it deserves and the veterans deserve,” Brown said. He later added, “Obviously, I like [the] strawberry patch — ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ Remember that song?”
Following the Governor’s visit, the land exchange 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 Sharron Quirk-Silver (Democrat) — the author of the original Southern California Veterans Cemetery legislation.
In addition, the land exchange was supported by the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, the non-partisan veterans’ group that had tirelessly and heroically pressed for an Orange County veterans cemetery for many years.
On June 6, 2017, the Irvine City Council voted 3-2 to change the site originally designated for a veterans’ cemetery and to proceed with the land exchange (125 acres of the ARDA for 125 acres of the Strawberry Fields) with FivePoint.
Mayor Don Wagner, Councilmember Christina Shea, and I voted in favor of this land exchange. Councilmembers Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott voted against.
The State legislature then adopted two budget trailer bills related to the Southern California Veterans Cemetery. These bills authorized CalVet to acquire, study, design, develop, construct, and equip a state-owned and state-operated Southern California Veterans Cemetery at the new Strawberry Fields sites; provided $500,000 for a new CalVet study; authorized CalVet to submit a request for Federal Cemetery Grant funds; and provided $5 million to the Southern California Veterans Cemetery Master Development Fund.
Over the next few months, further approvals of the land exchange were then made by the Irvine Transportation Commission, which found that the land exchange would not have any significant impact on Irvine’s traffic, and by the Irvine Planning Commission, which urged approval necessary zoning changes.
It now seemed that the Southern California Veterans Cemetery was finally on track and was smoothly moving forward at last. All that remained was final approval of the land exchange agreement by the City Council at the City Council meeting on September 26, 2017.
But just when it seemed that the veterans cemetery was soon to be launched with a jubilant official groundbreaking ceremony, suddenly everything was thrown up in the air once again.
I heard from Bill Cook, a leader of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran, that the City Manager was now insisting on providing only 25 acres for a veterans cemetery. According to the scheme concocted by the City Manager, the remaining 100 acres would then be available for more houses, apartments, and hotels.
Next, I read in Voice of OC that the Irvine City Council is rumored to have “scheduled a closed session discussion of the veterans cemetery during its Sept. 26 meeting. The discussion reportedly will include using 100 acres of the veterans cemetery land for hotels, homes or other commercial purposes until the land is needed to bury veterans.”
Apparently, the City Manager had taken it upon himself to push this new 25 acre scheme for several weeks in staff negotiations with FivePoint, without direction from — or even informing — the City Council.
This action by the City Manager is outrageous.
Let me be clear:
Failing to provide the full 125 acres as promised will kill the veterans cemetery. CalVet has made it clear to the City that “The USDVA requires that the entire 125 acres be transferred to the state in whole in order for the state to receive a grant to begin Phase I construction. Additionally, the CA Public Works Board requires the same. Anything short of a 125 acre transfer to the state puts the entire project in jeopardy. Once the state takes possession of the land and construction begins, the land can only be used according to the SCVC Master Plan. No additional use leases, etc. will be authorized.”
The City Council never authorized or even discussed this outrageous betrayal of our commitment to provide 125 acres for a veterans cemetery. This was undertaken by the City Manager without my knowledge or, as far as I know, the knowledge of any other member of the City Council.
I will not participate in any secret session or back room deals. There are no terms in the land exchange agreement that cannot be shared with the public in open session.
I will fight to ensure that Irvine provides the full 125 acres as approved and committed by the City Council. Anything less would be a betrayal of our promise to our veterans, and I will vehemently fight against it.
What you can do:
Please send emails to the Mayor and City Council and tell them to stick to their promise to provide the full 125 acres. Tell your friends and neighbors, especially veterans, to do so as well.
Please attend the City Council meeting on Tuesday, September 26, 2017, and publicly tell the Council to keep its promise to our veterans.
We’ve fought long and hard so that Orange County veterans have a final resting place close to their families and loved ones.
The fight isn’t over yet.
Let’s make sure Irvine keeps its promise to our veterans.
See you there!