Irvine City Council Reverts to Great Park Site for Veteran Cemetery
Friday, May 15, 2020
After more than five years, a bitter initiative campaign and three alternate site proposals, the Irvine City Council has finally stopped fighting and embraced the location originally suggested for Orange County’s first state-run veterans cemetery.
In an unexpected reversal, the council voted on May 12, to adopt a citizens’ initiative that zones a 125.5-acre property on the northern edge of the Orange County Great Park (known as ARDA) so it could be used as a cemetery.
The measure also forbids cemeteries, funeral homes or any related uses in the Great Park and on some adjacent land.
The decision means voters won’t have to choose between two competing ballot measures regarding where to build a veterans cemetery.
Supporters of the ARDA site gathered enough signatures to place their measure on the ballot, and Irvine Mayor Christina Shea had pledged to also put before voters a council-sponsored measure designating a different, council-approved cemetery site.
But beyond the fact that there won’t be a vote on the veterans cemetery in November, there’s disagreement on exactly what the council decision means or what happens next.
The idea for a resting place to serve Orange County’s military families has been discussed since at least 2014, but a series of decisions by the City Council and voters bounced the location from the ARDA site to one near the I-5/I-405 interchange to a piece of land in the Great Park that was planned as a golf course.
Supporters of the ARDA site were prepared to go to the ballot again to overturn the council’s 2019 vote in favor of the golf course site, but the council – in a 4-1 vote with Shea dissenting – made that unnecessary when they adopted the initiative outright.
“I was surprised and of course very pleased,” said Larry Agran, a former mayor who wrote the initiative, adding that with the council’s vote, “it is the law of the city, and that settles the issue once and for all.”
While Agran said he’s not discouraged, he acknowledged existing state funding falls far short of what’s needed to build at ARDA, and the rest of the money is likely “not in this next budget, or the year after that, or the year after that.”
A 2019 state estimate pegged the cost to clean up and build on the ARDA site around $95 million, but Agran maintains it is closer to $62.7 million.
Others disagree on what should happen next or are unclear on what the council’s vote meant.
“I took it as direction that they want to use the ARDA site,” Irvine City Manager John Russo said, but the measure council members adopted doesn’t compel the city to give the property to the state, or to take any specific action.
“I think they need to have a discussion, now we’ve adopted this, what are the steps we need to take,” he said.
Councilwoman Farrah Khan, who proposed adopting the citizens’ measure, said Wednesday her goal was to avoid a nasty political fight, put the issue to rest and allow the council to focus on helping residents and the city’s economy through the coronavirus pandemic.
But she sees an uncertain path ahead for the cemetery project. State officials may still plan to obey legislation that directs them to study the suitability of the ARDA and golf course sites, she said, and it’s unclear whether $24.5 million in already allocated state money remains available for the cemetery.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced the pandemic – and the economic shutdown that resulted – turned an expected budget surplus into a $54 billion deficit.
Councilwoman Melissa Fox took a different view. The drop in gas prices and other expenses should lower the cost of the project, it would provide much needed jobs, and state legislators are mulling stimulus bills that would fund construction projects, she said.
“We know it’s going to be time to get California building and moving again to jump start the economy, and we’d like to be first in line for those dollars,” she said.
But with city and state finances in an uncertain state, some cemetery supporters see the council’s decision as a death knell for the project.
FivePoint had pledged $28 million toward a cemetery on the golf course site, which when added to the state money and anticipated federal reimbursement would have covered the city’s cost estimate of nearly $59 million.
FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad said he’s not interested in donating toward the ARDA site because he doesn’t think the project will ever get the rest of the money to move forward there.
“When I see $68 million from the state of California, come talk to me,” he said.
Besides, he said, the local school district had raised concerns about students at nearby schools hearing military gun salutes from the ARDA site, and he’d rather put FivePoint’s money toward whatever will now be built on the golf course site.
State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who carried several bills to get a veterans cemetery in Irvine, said she’s disappointed but understands the council’s decision to protect city taxpayers and avoid a ballot box fight.
While she wishes proponents the best of luck, she said, “it would be very hard for me to push for any more funding, let alone the funding we already have, when we see this economic downturn and people who truly are dying on the streets of Orange County.”
Vietnam veteran Bill Cook, who’s been part of the effort from the beginning, said some veterans “feel completely betrayed,” but ongoing arguments and accusations have left them unsure who’s to blame.
He thinks the latest developments have set the project back several years, and he faults those who kept pushing ballot measures to overturn council decisions.
His message to Agran and other ARDA supporters?
“The field is clear, the job is yours, you’ve made the promises – now do it.”