A series of veterans groups gathered Thursday around an iconic open space called Gypsum Canyon, near the intersection of toll road 241 and Interstate 91, watching county supervisors announce their intention to ‘enter the long struggle to create a veterans cemetery in Orange County.
The new site opens up a host of questions for county, state and federal officials, including what happens to a pot of nearly $ 25 million in state budget funds – currently slated for a cemetery veterans in Irvine but now under pressure to be changed to just Orange County, which would make the Gypsum Canyon site eligible.
Local leaders are also hoping to receive up to $ 10 million from the federal government for the construction of the cemetery. While a cemetery site in Orange County has been on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs radar for years, it is low on the priority list due to the inability to choose a site.
Moving to Gypsum Canyon
The move to the Gypsum Canyon site comes after nearly a decade of fighting in Irvine that has never yielded any tangible results, a fact several speakers repeatedly emphasized during Thursday’s event.
Nick Berardino, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Alliance and one of the strongest voices leading the charge out of Irvine, spoke of the years of political quagmire in Irvine and praised efforts to relocate the site of a veterans cemetery in Gypsum Canyon.
âWe were pretty much kicked out of the three sites by one group or another,â Berardino said. âIn Vietnam, we used to say ‘When we die and go to heaven, Saint Peter, we will say to another veteran who reports sir, I served my sentence in hell.’ I used to think this applied to Vietnam until I tried to have a cemetery in Irvine!
Nick Berardino, Chairman of the Orange County Veterans Alliance
Anaheim City Councilor Trevor O’Neil jumped at Berardino’s remark, thanking Irvine for his failure.
“Thanks … to the town of Irvine for not coming to a consensus on either of your proposed sites,” O’Neil said to the laughter of the crowd. “Today Anaheim is open to our veterans.”
Irvine Veterans Cemetery Debate
Irvine City Council chose a site for a veterans cemetery in Orange County Grand Park in 2014, but since then the city has continued to discuss the final location, resulting in two voting initiatives, three different sites and over a million dollars in taxpayer dollars spent.
For the past four years, the city has been stuck in a debate between two Grand Parc sites, with different groups of voters protesting against them for different reasons.
Some accuse developer FivePoint Holdings of complicating the process in an attempt to take over the proposed largest site in the Grand Parc, while others point to internal political struggles that crushed the project before it ever had. had the chance to take off.
[Read: How Did Irvine Fail to Build a Veterans Cemetery After Nearly a Decade of Debate?]
Last month, city council openly encouraged veterans to seek out opportunities outside the city following a marathon meeting where residents protested against all proposed sites at the former El Toro air base. Marine Corps.
Bill Cook, a Navy veteran who left El Toro for Vietnam, has been one of the first people responsible for establishing a veterans cemetery in Irvine since the late 1990s, founding the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.
Earlier this year, Cook publicly raised his hand on Irvine and said he was quitting the effort, tired of city leaders’ inability to forge consensus around a site.
Cook then focused on the Gypsum Canyon site.
“I can tell you almost universally that (veterans’) opinion (of Irvine) ranges from negative to hostile,” Cook said at Irvine’s last council meeting. “You have kept this problem captive for almost a decade.”
Bill Cook, President of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation
Now, county leaders have responded to calls from veterans groups and are considering setting aside 100 acres in Gypsum Canyon for a veterans cemetery, which is part of a 200-acre plot intended to become a public graveyard.
Who supports the new site?
All VFW post in Orange County and nearly all American Legion posts have signed up to support the Gypsum Canyon site, as well as the Orange County Veterans And Military Family Collaborative and just over half a dozen others Southern California veterans groups.
While the site had previously been suggested as a final resting place for veterans, it is the first site outside of Irvine to gain momentum in years.
County Supervisor Don Wagner hosted the event, attended by the rest of the Board of Directors as well as District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who obtained the necessary county approvals for a veterans cemetery in 2018, while he was county supervisor representing the district where the site is located. is located.
A crowd of city council members from the cities of Lake Forest, Irvine, Anaheim and representatives from several congressional and state officials also attended the event.
âEveryone’s here saying this is the site, now is the time, let’s do it,â Wagner said.
What does it take to build a veterans cemetery?
It is still unclear how much the Gypsum Canyon site will cost.
Wagner said county staff were working on estimates, but were not ready to release numbers.
When asked, Wagner said he would not be against investing the county’s money in the project, but needed to find out more before committing to it.
âI would support county fundraising, if it’s the right amount of the right budget,â Wagner said. “I’m not going to say no to any particular county funding source at this pointâ¦ it’s too early to say.”
Supervisor Katrina Foley said she wanted to invest county dollars in the cemetery, calling on all levels of government to participate and make it happen.
âI think we need to pool our resources,â Foley said. âEveryone has to get started. ”
Opposition to the Gypsum Canyon site
A handful of Irvine residents who want the cemetery to return to their hometowns also came to the event, highlighting how Irvine voters were promised a cemetery thanks to multiple voting initiatives put in place at the level. from the city.
They also spoke of the concerns of FivePoint Holdings, a developer in the city, which was buying the unused land for a cemetery and turning it into commercial buildings.
“This is utter nonsense,” said Harvey Liss, former Irvine planning commissioner and long-time supporter of a site that houses the hangars and the El Toro air traffic control tower. âIrvine supports thisâ¦ we just need a non-FivePoint city council. ”
Some also targeted Irvine’s board members Mike Carroll and Tammy Kim, who were attending the Anaheim site endorsement event, asking them why they hadn’t delivered a cemetery to their constituents.
âI support any project that will actually get done,â Carroll said when asked after the event. “It’s a big day for Orange County veterans and a sad day for Larry Agran.”
Irvine City Councilor Larry Agran was the loudest voice in Irvine City Council calling for a cemetery in Irvine at the hangar site.
Agran has repeatedly emphasized Irvine’s commitment to a cemetery and the city’s zoning law deeming the shed site to be a cemetery, which nearly 20,000 residents presented a voting initiative to council when they approved it last year.
“This is a wonderful project that should come to fruition and we must not allow a developer and his allies to frustrate and defeat the will of the people of the town of Irvine,” Agran said in an interview last Wednesday before. the Gypsum Canyon event.
Concerns about Irvine residents still clamoring for a cemetery were also dismissed by other participants, indicating instead that the coalition supported the gypsum site.
âIt’s going to die out,â Wagner said.
Will it ever be built? What happens next?
It is not yet clear when supervisors will finally address the cemetery issue, but Wagner says he hopes to see them break new ground by the end of the year, while noting that it was not a promise.
In the meantime, attention is once again shifting to Sacramento, which is currently considering a bill from State Senator Tom Umberg that would send support exclusively to a developed cemetery in Irvine.
Veterans and county leaders are calling on the state to instead commission a survey of the Gypsum Canyon site and go beyond Irvine.
But on Saturday, Kev Abazajian, president of the Democrats of Greater Irvine, called on residents to contact their state’s lawmakers to urge them to keep the Irvine cemetery.
“Irvine voters have on several occasions been absolutely clear … that their preference is for the State Veterans Cemetery at the original site (hangar) in the heart of the former El Toro Marine Base,” he said. Abazajian said in a text to Voice of OC on Saturday afternoon. , referring to council approval of an initiative last year that zoned the hangar site for a cemetery without forcing council to move forward there. âMost residents felt that the May 2020 vote settled the location. And, legally, he did.
At the same time, residents of the Great Park who live right next to the proposed cemetery site were calling for the exact opposite, encouraging residents to call state lawmakers and change the designation to anywhere in County of ‘Orange.
These two sides will face off next week, as the state assembly considers Umberg’s bill on July 6.