At the State Capitol in Sacramento, Orange County lawmakers have introduced a bill — Assembly Bill 368 — in a renewed effort to begin construction of the 125-acre State Veterans Cemetery at the original Great Park site, approved in 2014.
On a recent afternoon visit to the Great Park in north Irvine, Ed Pope, co-chair of the citizens’ committee to Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery, pointed toward the site of the long-planned — but not yet built — State Veterans Cemetery in the Great Park. With an edge to his voice, Pope said, “Look at this — our 125-acre site was set aside five years ago and still nothing has been built on it.”
Pope continued, “If the City Council hadn’t reversed course two years ago, right now we would be nearing completion of the 30-month construction project, and the beautiful Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery in our Great Park would be open and operational by Veterans Day this year, on November 11th.”
Ed Pope, 81, is a U.S. Army veteran, an award-winning retired high school teacher, and a 47-year resident of Irvine. As he reviewed the history of the Veterans Cemetery project, Pope referred back to 2017, lamenting that “instead of beginning construction in the summer of 2017, on schedule, three members of the City Council actually rejected a $30 million construction grant from the State.”
Apparently, at the behest of developer FivePoint Communities, Mayor (now Supervisor) Don Wagner, and Councilmembers Christina Shea and Melissa Fox abruptly voted for a complicated land-swap scheme to replace the planned Veterans Cemetery with massive office, industrial and apartment development.
The Council’s unpopular decision, in turn, eventually triggered an historic Irvine ballot referendum and voter revolt. In the face of developer FivePoint’s $1 million campaign, Irvine voters overwhelmingly rejected the developer’s “Measure B,” 63% to 37%, in a special June 5, 2018 election.
Pope, who chaired the successful “NO on B” referendum campaign, observed, “Last year, the voters made plain that they wanted the City Council to stick with the original Great Park Veterans Cemetery site, and start building the Veterans Cemetery right away.”
But, so far, the City Council has refused to implement the will of the people, choosing instead to talk about “alternatives” to the original Great Park Veterans Cemetery plan. Meanwhile, the original Great Park Veterans Cemetery project has languished. Until now.
Renewed leadership, renewed opportunity
Now, in a dramatic show of State legislative leadership, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), joined by others in the Orange County State legislative delegation, sent a mid-March letter to the Irvine City Council urging support for her bill, AB 368. The bill, upon passage, would once again designate the original Great Park Veterans Cemetery site — approved by the City, State (CalVet) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014-16 — as the chosen location for the State Veterans Cemetery, which would then be built with State funds. AB 368 also provides that the State would equip, operate and maintain the Veterans Cemetery in perpetuity, at no cost to the City of Irvine.
According to State officials, following legislative approval in Sacramento — and City approval to move forward — actual construction of the Veterans Cemetery could begin right away, with a 30-month timeline to complete the project.
Will City officials say YES this time?
The City Council is expected to consider the Veterans Cemetery matter this Spring. But, according to highly placed City Hall officials, it’s an open question as to what a majority of City Councilmembers will do. Will they say YES to this new opportunity to finally get the Great Park Veterans Cemetery built and operational? Or will they continue to search for “alternatives” to the original Great Park Veterans Cemetery site? None of those alternatives have the historic significance of the original site, which includes aircraft hangars and the iconic control tower.
In an interview, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, the lead author of AB 368, said she wouldn’t ask the State and state taxpayers to fund the study of yet another site. “As far as I am concerned, if we are going to build the Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park, we will do so at the original Great Park site.”
Quirk-Silva added, “Since 2014, the original Great Park site has been thoroughly studied and approved — by CalVet and by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It is clearly the best site for the Veterans Cemetery. I’m not interested in funding any other sites.”
Ed Pope, noting that he speaks on behalf of thousands of veterans in Irvine alone, said he applauds Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva and other legislative leaders. “The fact of the matter is that this project enjoys overwhelming public approval. It is construction-ready,” he said.
“What are we waiting for? Irvine and Orange County veterans are dying, on average, at a rate of two or three per day. They deserve to be laid to rest and honored right here at the original Great Park Veterans Cemetery site, close to home and family. We can’t — and shouldn’t — wait any more!”