How One Orange County Veterans Cemetery Project Has Snowballed Into a State and Federal Issue

June 24, 2019 Updated: June 24, 2019

A bill is sailing through the state legislature that would designate a veterans’ cemetery to be built in the Orange County Great Park in the city of Irvine.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) in February introduced the bill to designate the site to be built after years of debate over its possible location.

After the El Toro Marine Air Base closed in 1999, proposals to build a commercial airport were shot down following local complaints about the noise pollution that would have occurred as a result. After a long political battle, the site was eventually converted into the Orange County Great Park, which is used for sports, agriculture and the arts.

However, just 29% of the former base’s land is used for the park, while the remaining 71% remains dormant, much of which is in need of remediation due to toxic substances in the soil from when the airbase was still operative.

In 2014, veterans’ advocates proposed a veterans’ cemetery to be built on a portion of the remaining dormant land, due to the airbase’s historical significance. However, this project has been stalled for years.

Assemblywoman Quirk-Silva’s bill, AB-368, would mandate that the cemetery be built in an area within the Orange County Great Park at the site of the former El Toro Air Base. A 125-acre piece of land known as the Amended and Restated Development Agreement Site or ARDA, is the designated space for the cemetery in Quirk-Silva’s bill.

The veterans’ cemetery project requires funding from a state legislature-approved bill. The Epoch Times spoke with 3rd District Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner on the issue.

Wagner who previously served as mayor of Irvine and as a member of the state Assembly from the 68th district, argued that Quirk-Silva’s bill is the wrong approach. Wagner suggested that a site in Anaheim Hills would be better to avoid the political fighting within the city of Irvine. He elaborated on his push to move to the new site and the how the longstanding issue has snowballed over the years.

“Originally the cost estimate was $70 million (for the ARDA site). This site was a placeholder until we found a better site,” he said.

After a bitter political battle with former Irvine mayor and one time Democratic Presidential candidate Larry Agren and a failed attempt to move the site to a new location, the project was stalled in 2017.

“The former mayor of Irvine, who lost his role on the city council because of the owner of the swapped land, decides he’s going to put a stop to this just to spite his political opponents,” claimed Wagner.

This brought the state back to the original ARDA site, which is now estimated to cost $91 million instead of the original $70 million.

“It was a total mess. It’s not a financial question or a disagreement about the location. This was political,” Wagner said, describing the turn of events in 2017.

“I don’t think Irvine is going to solve the political problem it’s got. I don’t think it makes any sense to spend $91 million dollars on tearing down old buildings and fixing the infrastructure just to bury the vets. Let’s spend it on the live vets and make sure they’ve got the treatment and services they need.”

Upon becoming a supervisor, Wagner said he surveyed the Anaheim Hills site and its financing. He said the new location would be twice as large and would be available for civilians as well, not just veterans.

The issue took Wagner to Washington, D.C. towards the end of his tenure as mayor. He met with the head of the Cemetery Division of the Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss what they needed for the site. He said he was told that a veterans’ cemetery with room for 100 years only needed 55 acres.

Wagner explained that the first phase of the Anaheim Hills site would cost around $55 million for the veterans and civilian cemetery, compared to the ARDA site, which is at $91 million. While he didn’t have a total estimate for the entire cost, Wagner expressed his confidence that the Anaheim Hills site would be far less costly.

“I am firmly convinced that the veterans’ portion of [the] Anaheim [site] is going to be cheaper than the $91 million for ARDA.”

The only issue is that Wagner was told the VA was only going to be providing $10 million, and the project was 75th on its list of priorities. He was also told that if AB 368 gets state approval, the project will jump up on the list. He said he still doesn’t believe it will be enough money to fund the building of the site.

“At the end of the day, even if you move up to number one, you’re not getting a lot of money from the feds,” he said.

For these reasons, Wagner has been pushing for Assemblywoman Quirk-Silva to reconsider the location of the site in her AB 368 bill. However, he told The Epoch Times that the bill’s supporters are not willing to change the location of the site.

The bill in question received widespread bipartisan support on a May 23 Assembly floor vote, receiving 76 votes in favor, 0 against, and 4 not voting. It is likely to face little opposition in the senate or from Governor Newsom.

AB 360 is currently under review by the Senate committee on Veterans Affairs.