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Residents launch petition to overturn Southern Calif. council's decision on veterans cemetery

Richard Ramirez' wife holds the bumper sticker Bill Cook designed. A group of Orange County veterans are advocating for a veterans cemetery in the Orange County Great Park, which was once the home of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER (TNS)

By TOMOYA SHIMURA | The Orange County Register (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 24, 2017

IRVINE, Calif. — A battle over where to build the first military veterans cemetery in California's Orange County isn’t quite over yet.

Irvine resident and Army veteran Edward Pope has started a campaign called Save the Veterans Cemetery to overturn the City Council’s decision to put a state-run veterans cemetery at 125 acres near the I-5/I-405 interchange. Pope and his supporters — including former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran — want the city to stick to its original plan and build it on a piece of land north of the Orange County Great Park.

Pope said by phone Friday, Oct. 20, the city’s decision to change the site could delay the cemetery construction. Also, the city’s approval of commercial uses at the original site could cause traffic congestion, he said.

“We are just trying to move things back to where it was,” Pope said.

City officials and veteran leaders, however, say such an attempt actually jeopardizes the cemetery project.

“The petition is a despicable attempt to trick Irvine voters,” Councilwoman Melissa Fox said. “The petition’s central lie is the claim that the veterans cemetery needs to be ‘saved.’ The truth is that the cemetery is proceeding at full steam — far faster than would be possible on the original contaminated site. The petition would delay the creation of the veterans cemetery and could even prevent it from being built.”

A dedication and flag-raising ceremony is scheduled Oct. 27 at the new cemetery site near Muirlands Boulevard and Sterling, which is currently used as strawberry fields.

If things go smoothly, cemetery construction could start as early as October 2018, said state Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who introduced a state bill to establish a cemetery in Irvine.

Why referendum and who’s funding it?

The City Council on Sept. 26 approved an agreement to swap the city-owned original cemetery site with the freeway property, owned by developer FivePoint. Both sites were part of the El Toro Marine base, which many veterans consider “hallowed ground.”

Upon receiving the freeway property, the city will immediately donate the whole 125-acre site to the state so the state can start building the cemetery.

The council also approved a zoning change that allows development of 812,000 square feet of research and development uses at the original site. FivePoint, which has the right to develop the freeway property for such uses, requested the zone change as part of the land swap.

A study showed that the land swap won’t create additional traffic, and city staff and the transportation and planning commissions recommended approving the land swap.

However, Pope said he felt betrayed when the council changed its mind about the cemetery location.

“Now we have a developer coming in trying to squeeze the cemetery out of that (original) location and replace it with a massive development,” he said.

Pope said he received support from the Irvine Community News and Views — a monthly publication with ties to Agran — to launch and fund the “Save the Veterans Cemetery” campaign.

Agran, who writes for the publication, was the one who proposed offering the original site to the state when he was on the council in 2014. He has been a vocal critic of the city’s land swap with FivePoint and recently wrote a column in the Irvine Community News and Views endorsing the referendum.

“This is all at the behest of a mega developer FivePoint Communities,” Agran said, though denying an accusation that he’s been orchestrating Pope’s campaign as a vendetta against FivePoint.

The new site is not suited for a cemetery because it’s next to busy freeways, while the original site is considered part of the Great Park and is a perfect location, Agran said.

“It’s unfortunate an issue like this is still used for political reasons,” FivePoint Chairman and CEO Emile Haddad said. “We are honored to have played a small role in allowing the veterans to finally have a resting place in Orange County that’s going to be visible for hundreds of thousands of people driving up and down the freeway.”

Petitioners are collecting resident signatures for a referendum on the city’s decision to rezone the original cemetery site.

They have 30 days from Oct. 10, when the City Council finalized its approval, to submit at least about 12,000 signatures, 10 percent of the city’s registered voters. If successful, Irvine voters will be asked in the November 2018 election to affirm or deny the council decision.

Why change location?

Fox and others say the freeway site is better suited for the cemetery and also saves taxpayer money.

After the state passed Quirk-Silva’s bill in 2014 to build a cemetery near the Great Park, some residents expressed concerns about having a cemetery so close to their homes, Portola High School and a future K-8 school.

Also, a report came out estimating that the first phase of the project — including the demolition of the original site and construction of a portion of the cemetery — would cost $77.4 million.

The City Council in April committed up to $38 million toward the project, with a condition that the state can come up with money to match that. Quirk-Silva said the state would only contribute $30 million.

The City Council at a June 6 special meeting voted 3-2 in favor of pursuing the FivePoint land. Councilman Jeff Lalloway and Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott, both of whom support the original site, voted no.

Mayor Don Wagner said at the time it wasn’t fair for Irvine taxpayers to have to make up the $50 million difference when there’s a cheaper option available. That money would come from the nearly $250 million the city will receive from the state to develop the Great Park.

Because the freeway site doesn’t require demolition, Quirk-Silva said $25.5 million should be enough to build the first 25 acres of the cemetery. The state plans to contribute $5.5 million toward the project, and FivePoint will chip in $10 million as part of the swap.

The next step is for the state to analyze the site, put together an environmental report and apply for a $10 million federal grant by June, Quirk-Silva said.

Bill Cook, a Vietnam War veteran who heads the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, said he’s “beyond anger” about the referendum campaign. He said it could delay the project he’s been working to achieve since 1999.

He said the original site wasn’t ideal to begin with.

“We now have the best possible site,” Cook said. “There is nothing better and there was nothing better.”

The new cemetery is expected to relieve a shortage in military gravesites in Southern California. The national cemetery in Los Angeles is at capacity and the one in Riverside requires a lengthy wait.

When fully built out, the cemetery will offer more than 210,000 gravesites, enough to serve the needs of veterans for the next 100 years, according to the state.

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©2017 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
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