Orange County

OC Vets Cemetery Clears Hurdle, But Still Dogged by Politics

State lawmakers this week took another step toward funding a veterans cemetery within the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, but Supervisor Don Wagner said Wednesday he hopes to keep pushing for the burial grounds to be located in Anaheim Hills.

Wagner, who was mayor of Irvine before being elected in March to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said years of infighting over sites in Irvine should be abandoned in favor of a Gypsum Canyon site that is envisioned as a cemetery for veterans, their loved ones and others involved in the Korean or Vietnam wars.

"Irvine can't get its act together, they can't figure it out, and the one location (former Irvine mayor) Larry Agran keeps pushing is way too expensive and doesn't make any sense, so I've pretty much thrown my hands up in the air with Irvine since we already have a perfectly good site in Anaheim Hills," Wagner told City News Service.

On Tuesday, the state Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee voted to approve a bill by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, that would designate the preferred cemetery site as 125 acres within the Orange County Great Park that used to be part of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. It's known as the Amended and Restated Development Agreement, or ARDA, site.

"I think the state is pushing the ARDA site because Sharon Quirk-Silva has been trying to get something done for the longest time and has not been able to because Irvine hasn't been able to, and I think she is fed up with the issue -- to heck with it, let's go with ARDA," Wagner said.

Quirk-Silva did not dispute that contention and said it was up to Irvine officials to make it happen. Irvine officials tried to pitch a new "horseshoe" site at the Great Park right before this week's committee hearing, she said.

That site -- called the golf site since it was zoned for a golf course -- is backed by the Great Park developers, who have offered $28 million for the project, Quirk-Silva said.

Wagner said the main problem with the ARDA site is a $90 million estimate to clean it up. "So if you get $20 million this year and $20 million next year ... they have to do this four more times," he said.

"If everybody steps back and says, you know what, it is too big a nut to crack in Irvine so let's everybody agree that for the good of the veterans let's go with Anaheim Hills because that can be done tomorrow," Wagner said.

Anaheim officials have no objections and the county board is backing the Gypsum Canyon site, Wagner said.

Wagner is pushing to have Quirk-Silva's bill amended to have the Gypsum Canyon site funded instead. But he said he believes there are some politicians in Irvine who just want the issue to run on into the next election cycle and after.

"They're using the veterans as pawns," Wagner said.

The supervisor said he is hopeful that Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, who is a veteran, will be receptive to the Anaheim Hills site. Umberg has backed Quirk-Silva's bill, along with Assemblyman Tom Daly, D-Anaheim.

Quirk-Silva said one of the main issues with the Gypsum Canyon site is that it would not be a strictly veterans cemetery as proposed.

"Unless it is a state or federally run cemetery, then the military people could not use their benefits there, so that's the biggest thing," Quirk-Silva said.

The difference in cost between a military-funded burial and a private one can run as high as $8,000, she said.

There are also some questions about whether the Gypsum Canyon site would be a challenge to modify for a cemetery because of its hills.

"There's still quite a bit of other issues such as getting in the roads and infrastructure and also that it's on a hilly grade that would be pretty difficult to work with," she said. "It doesn't mean it would be impossible, but there still would be a cost to use that site."

Quirk-Silva also said an expert has advised that it might not cost up to $90 million to clean up the ARDA site; that money could potentially be saved by adding soil instead of digging up the contaminants.

Quirk-Silva said she would like a "face-to-face" meeting among the stakeholders to discuss the newly proposed site in Irvine. But she said the horseshoe shape of that site might make it harder to accommodate a cemetery.

Quirk-Silva said she has an open mind on Gypsum Canyon, but wants to keep working on an Irvine site.

"If we absolutely can't get anywhere with Irvine, maybe we go down that pathway," Quirk-Silva said. "This has been sadly more political than I think anybody envisioned, especially myself."

Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, agreed, saying he has been trying to alert lawmakers in Sacramento voting on the issue that "it's a little contentious down in the district."

Moorlach said he has seen an estimate that it would cost $58 million to remediate the newly proposed golf site in Irvine.

"Some of the veterans are saying we should just go with the golf course site because at least we're getting closer to achievability," Moorlach said.

Moorlach also noted that Arlington and the cemetery in Normandy, France, are hilly, "so it seems to me a little more dramatic and inspirational" to build the cemetery in Anaheim Hills.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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