The fate of the proposed Orange County Veterans Cemetery is once again uncertain after the state of California announced that it would conduct a review of two potential sites in Irvine and make the final decision on its own.
After years of negotiations, the Irvine City Council in May approved a location for the cemetery at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, a site supported by a voter initiative that collected nearly 20,000 signatures.
In a Sept. 9 email to The Epoch Times, however, the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) outlined the state’s plan to dedicate $700,000 for review and update of an existing feasibility study on the city-approved site—and also to proceed with a feasibility study of a second nearby site.
The area approved by the city—labeled the Amended and Restated Development Agreement (ARDA) Site—includes old buildings used by the Marine Corps, including barracks, hangars, and other structures. The other site includes part of the Orange County Great Park and was formerly zoned as a potential golf course.
“CalVet expects the feasibility studies to be complete and will then submit a pre-application for a grant through the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) state cemetery grants program prior to the June 30, 2021 due date,” the email stated.
CalVet will work with the Department of General Services (DGS) to review the feasibility study before submitting the proposal to establish a Southern California Veteran Cemetery, the email said. New cemeteries are a top priority for the federal grants, which rank proposals based on their competitiveness, and total approximately $45 million.
On Sept. 8, the Orange County Veteran’s Memorial Park Foundation praised CalVet for “performing the due-diligence site selection on the old ARDA site and the new ‘Golf Course Site’” in its review and accused the city of Irvine of “manipulative exclusionary zoning” in the process of choosing the site.
The foundation supports moving the cemetery outside of Irvine and recommended a different location entirely.
“At the next legislative opportunity, the State of California should name Gypsum Canyon as their SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA VETERANS CEMETERY, and direct all current and future funding and development efforts to this location,” the foundation stated in a Facebook post on Sept. 6.
The foundation posted a Sept. 4 CalVet document on its Facebook page that stated that the DGS had contracted with the private firm Huitt-Zollars Inc. to perform the ARDA site evaluation and the golf course site feasibility study. All parties involved will meet virtually in about two weeks to discuss timelines and milestones related to the evaluations, the document stated.
Despite gap-cutting reductions due to COVID-19, the latest California state budget has confirmed $24.5 million in funding for the project, according to Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who has pushed for funding for the cemetery since 2017.
“Orange County has historically been home to a robust military presence—which included the Santa Ana Army Air Base, one of the largest Army/Air Force training bases during World War II; El Toro Base (MCAS); Tustin (MCAS) and the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station,” according to a June press release issued by Quirk-Silva.
“There are thousands of men and women and their families who have served their country, who are in need of a proper and honorable resting site.”
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, former mayor of Irvine, told The Epoch Times last year that the total cost of the project could run as high as $91 million.
Wagner said at the time that he was told the federal Department of Veterans Affairs would provide an additional $10 million, but there still remains a significant funding gap.
The city of Irvine could have started developing the El Toro site this year, but the City Council deadlocked on whether to break ground or turn the property over to the state in a 2–2 vote on June 23.
Councilmember Melissa Fox wrote in a May blog post that the ARDA site requires extensive demolition and decontamination to make it usable for the cemetery.
She also said the other golf course site “has never been studied or evaluated—by either the City or the State—for use as a veterans cemetery.”
“The truth is, since we have not actually studied the question, we have no idea whether locating the veterans cemetery on the Golf Course site rather than the ARDA would save a penny for the taxpayers,” she wrote.