The Irvine City Council unanimously approved a 125-acre site for a proposed Veterans Memorial Cemetery within the Orange County Great Park Tuesday night.
When the 5-0 vote was recorded, an overwhelming celebration among the standing room-only crowd in council chambers delayed the remainder of the regular session for 20 minutes.
"This is a major step forward," said Bill Cook, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee. "We really feel, as veterans now, that we're going to see a veterans cemetery in Orange County."
Calling it "far and away the best site that could be identified for a veterans memorial cemetery," the resolution was brought forward by Councilman Larry Agran partly to support California Assembly Bill 1453.
The bill to establish a veteran's cemetery in Orange County passed with unanimous Assembly support in June and is headed for a vote before the state Senate Appropriations Committee Aug. 4.
Approving the specific site for the cemetery along the northern border of the Great Park "makes this much more of a reality," according to the bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who attended the council meeting.
"I stand here in support of a historic piece of legislation," Quirk-Silva said from the podium as the first in a parade of public speakers. "We are all here for a very short time. This bill would live long past us. It's important."
Twenty-two more speakers followed her to the microphone, many of them wearing military uniforms, all passionately supporting the issue.
"I joined the Marines in 1945 for World War II," said retired Marine Neil Reich of Fullerton, still appearing leatherneck-tough at age 86. "I don't know how it happened, but somehow, before I could leave the States, Japan surrendered when they heard about me enlisting."
Reich missed out on WWII, but was wounded in Korea and served two tours in Vietnam. Summing up his plea before the council, he said, "When my time comes, be it next year, or the next 14-years when I turn 100, I plan on coming back to the Marine Air Station El Toro."
The attendance reflected momentum from several years of debate over a veterans cemetery in the Great Park. Many supporters expressed concern that development interests could smother the project.
"Tonight, the council has an opportunity to decide," said Ed Pope, who identified himself as an Army veteran and a 42-year resident of Irvine. "Are you going to honor those of us that served this nation with an appropriate memorial cemetery in the Great Park? Or are you going to be more concerned about how many homes Five Points can sell?" referring to the city's partner in the public/private Great Park development agreement.
"When I first started this, I did have a lot of questions," said Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway, who also chairs the ad hoc Great Park Veterans Cemetery Committee, "and they've been answered. They've been answered to me in a satisfactory manner. I think now's the time to go forward with this."