A 100-acre plot that had been intended for a golf course in the Orange County Great Park will become a veterans cemetery, the Irvine City Council decided late Tuesday, July 23.
The decision is intended to settle more than five years of debate over where the county will lay its military service members to rest, but a few outstanding issues could slow or derail the project.
Council members chose the golf course site in a 4-1 vote after several dozen residents, including veterans, urged them to move forward – though some speakers and Councilwoman Melissa Fox, who cast the sole no vote, favored a site on the Great Park’s northern border that was originally pitched for the cemetery in 2014.
Known as ARDA, that northern site still contains buildings, runways and contamination such as asbestos from the former El Toro Marine air base, and state estimates peg the cost of cleanup and the first phase of a cemetery at $95 million.
A formal review of the golf course site, which is south of the ARDA parcel and was also part of El Toro, hasn’t taken place but city officials project a cemetery’s initial phase could be built there for just under $59 million.
Much of Tuesday’s discussion, which included comments from several dozen residents, centered on which site would be better, cheaper or faster to build on, and there were plenty of disputes over which side’s facts were accurate.
FivePoint Holdings, which is overseeing development of much of the Great Park and the surrounding homes, has pledged $28 million – of which $18 million had been promised to build the golf course – toward the cemetery project.
Officials also expect $24.5 million from the state and a potential $10 million in federal reimbursement for the project.
The company’s offer led some speakers to accuse council members of conspiring with FivePoint to free up the ARDA site for development, an assertion Mayor Christina Shea called “ridiculous.”
To address that, Councilwoman Farrah Khan asked for a future council discussion on rezoning the ARDA property, where current rules allow 250 homes, two hotels and a retail center. That issue should come up next month.
One remaining obstacle is a state bill that designates the ARDA site for the cemetery; it will have to be amended.
And former mayor Larry Agran, who has led the charge to build on the ARDA site, could pursue a ballot measure to enforce what he says is the will of city voters. Agran backed a 2018 initiative that overturned a council-approved land swap that would have put the cemetery on a different site owned by FivePoint that is now used to grow strawberries.
Some veterans just want to see the matter settled for themselves and their fellow service members. Vietnam veteran Bill Cook urged the council before the vote: “Don’t kick the can down the road any farther.”
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