Veterans from Irvine and across OC have been targeting a state veterans cemetery at the former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro for decades.
Last June, the City of Irvine was set to receive an updated report from CalVet on the 125-acre Amended and Restated Development Agreement (ARDA) site so construction could continue on the first SoCal State Veterans Cemetery. Just two weeks before the report, a diversion was erected as an alternate site: Gypsum Canyon.
As Irvine residents who follow this closely, we’ve seen it before, not once, but twice.
The first hijacking dates back four years, in May 2017, when $30 million was allocated by the state for the ARDA site. Within two weeks, then-Mayor Wagner called a special council meeting which voted 3-2 to reject the millions. Instead, the council’s narrow majority entered into a land swap with developer FivePoint, placing the Veterans Cemetery next to the 405/5 Freeway interchange and allowing FivePoint a massive commercial development at the ‘ARDA. A citizens’ petition for a referendum garnered 19,125 signatures in 2017, putting the land swap on the ballot. From 63% to 37%, voters overwhelmingly chose to keep the original location.
The second hijacking occurred in June 2019, when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously passed AB 368, designating “to equip a state-owned Southern California Veterans Cemetery and state-operated…on 125 acres known as [ARDA site].” Within weeks, then-Mayor Shea told a group of landowners that a new “golf course” site she would propose was a “hijacking.” In July, the city council voted to study a different site at a planned golf course, launching a new $700,000 CalVet study.
In view of a second hijacking, the weary citizens of Irvine have launched an initiative petition which states that “the people of Irvine take this action to direct the City Council that the people of the city prefer to locate the cemetery Southern California veterans at the ARDA transfer site and nowhere else in the city of Irvine Nearly 20,000 signatures were collected by the volunteers, qualifying for the ballot, including nearly 4,000 of One of Us: Ed. Residents and veterans thought it was over when City Council passed the initiative by a 4-1 vote as an ordinance in May 2020.
City Council waited until June 2021 for the updated CalVet report of ARDA sites and “golf courses.” After receiving it, the Irvine City Council didn’t even discuss the second hijacking, possibly because it was an obvious red herring.
And now a third diversion faces us: Gypsum Canyon, promoted just before the City of Irvine Considerations on June 22.
A political action committee, VALOR, has woven its threads through this process. It was founded by longtime OC political operative Nick Berardino and received massive funding from developer FivePoint, in order to secure land swap approval in 2018, with nearly $1 million. routed to the PAC by FivePoint and affiliated developers. Even today, Berardino remains an AB 368 registered lobbyist for VALOR, which is explicitly “sponsored by Heritage Fields El Toro, LLC,” also known as FivePoint.
Meanwhile, many of the veteran groups that VALOR claims to represent are raising questions. Other groups seem to be those that should not be particularly interested in CO. A listed VFW post is in Nevada (#3630) and another in Pennsylvania (#6553). On the other hand, the group that supports the original MCAS El Toro site has hundreds of local veteran supporters.
Finally, Gypsum Canyon is problematic. We have received a review of reports and studies that find Gypsum Canyon to be poorly suited for development. Geotechnical issues include landslides, mudslides, and seismicity, as it sits on a seismic fault line. It is also designated by CalFire with the highest fire danger rating. The land is surrounded by protective easements that list species of native plants and animals with special status. In short, Gypsum Canyon does not seem viable for any development.
It is our hope that this third unsustainable diversion is the last and that the ARDA-researched and approved site in the heart of MCAS El Toro will soon become SoCal’s first State Veterans Cemetery without further diversions.
Kev Abazajian is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. Luette Forrest is a retired veterinary specialist from the University of California at Irvine. Ed McNew is a 48-year Irvine resident and Army veteran. They are volunteers of the Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery committee.