In a series of stunning victories in May and June, State lawmakers — led by Orange County Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva and Senator Tom Umberg — are winning approval of legislation, including more than $20 million in first-year funding, to begin building the Southern California Veterans Cemetery at its originally designated location on the 125-acre “ARDA” site at the Great Park.
The question now becomes whether or not Irvine Mayor Christina Shea and mega-developer FivePoint Communities will continue their efforts to derail the project and deny a final resting place for veterans.
Five years ago, then-Councilmember Christina Shea began a relentless effort to defeat a proposed State-built and State-operated Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park in northeast Irvine. Shea’s crusade to defeat the Veterans Cemetery continues to this day — even as the recently-appointed Mayor finds herself increasingly isolated in her opposition to the popular project.
Shea’s 5-year Crusade
On March 11, 2014, former Irvine Mayor and City Councilmember Larry Agran won adoption of his Council resolution, which stated: “The City of Irvine expresses its strong interest in providing at least 100 acres of land at the Orange County Great Park, formerly the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, for purposes of creating a Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery.”
Agran’s resolution was adopted by the City Council on a 4-to-1 vote. Only one City Councilmember voted NO: Christina Shea.
With legislative support and initial State funding earmarked for the project, the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) moved ahead (2014-2016), preparing and approving a 333-page Concept Plan, including an analysis and design for the specific site designated by the City: the 125-acre “ARDA” site in the Great Park. The Concept Plan included a 30-month construction timeline, which was also approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Despite these approvals, Shea continued her opposition. In fact, in early 2016, Shea teamed up with billion-dollar developer FivePoint and began promoting a so-called “land-swap” that would give away the 125-acre ARDA site to developer FivePoint and replace the planned Veterans Cemetery with more than 800,000 square feet of office, industrial and apartment development.
Later, after the 2016 election, it was revealed that FivePoint and other developers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect Shea and Mayoral candidate Don Wagner through their “outsourced” 2016 election campaigns.
In early 2017, as part of a 3-to-2 Council majority, Shea pushed through the FivePoint-backed zoning ordinance to replace the proposed Veterans Cemetery at the ARDA site. But as Irvine residents began to understand what was happening, they organized themselves and gathered more than 19,000 signatures to force a ballot referendum (Measure B) — an historic citywide vote on the “replace-and-develop” scheme being pushed by Shea and FivePoint.
Despite FivePoint pouring more than $1 million into their campaign, on June 5, 2018, Irvine voters overwhelmingly rejected Measure B, 63% to 37%. The voters made it clear that they wanted the Veterans Cemetery — not more FivePoint development — at the ARDA site in the Great Park.
What Now? What’s Next?
Since then, in a backroom deal, Shea has become Irvine’s first unelected Mayor in more than three decades. In April of this year, she automatically filled the vacancy in the Mayor’s seat when Mayor Don Wagner was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. As Mayor, Shea has continued to ignore the will of the people, promoting an “alternative” site for the Veterans Cemetery — the so-called “Golf Course” site at the Great Park. In fact, the site is not a golf course at all; it is an oddly-shaped and problematic parcel that was part of the former airbase; the site is unstudied, unapproved, and has no visible support among Irvine residents and voters.
Meanwhile, at the State Capitol in Sacramento, legislation and tens of millions of dollars in State Budget funding have been voted to commence construction of the Veterans Cemetery at the original ARDA site. Final passage and the Governor’s signature on the legislation are expected as early as August. All this is happening despite Shea’s use of her new-found prominence as Mayor to oppose the Veterans Cemetery — in videos, newspaper articles, and also in letters to Sacramento legislators that were co-signed on City letterhead by Emile Haddad, Chairman and CEO of developer FivePoint. Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva said at a recent State Senate hearing she was “outraged” by the letters “driven by developers.”
Former Mayor Larry Agran, at the forefront of the Veterans Cemetery fight for more than five years, expressed his impatience, even anger toward Shea: “What’s wrong with our Mayor and City Council? At this point, all that’s needed is for the City Council to adopt a resolution. The Council simply needs to Just Say YES! to a resolution expressing its willingness to transfer the ARDA site to the State for CalVet to build, operate and maintain — at no cost to the City of Irvine — the long-promised Southern California Veterans Cemetery.” Agran added, “Where I come from, that’s known as a no-brainer.”
Irvine City Councilmember Melissa Fox has indicated she will soon be introducing a Council resolution directing the City to enter into an agreement with CalVet officials to transfer the ARDA property to the State so actual construction of the Veterans Cemetery can begin this year.
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