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Gov. Jerry Brown champions veterans cemetery on visit to O.C.

Gov. Jerry Brown champions veterans cemetery on visit to O.C.
Bill Cook, left, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park committee, talks with former Major Neil Reich about the proposed location of a new veterans cemetery at the former El Toro Marine Base. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Twelve years after efforts to transform a retired Marine base into an international airport were blocked, work crews Tuesday finally began ripping out the old military runways, a job that was supposed to herald the arrival of what would be one of America's great municipal parks.

Now, instead, it sets the stage for neighborhoods of high-priced homes, a scaled-back park and, perhaps, a veterans cemetery.

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In a rare Orange County appearance, Gov. Jerry Brown arrived in Irvine to champion what he said was the long-overdue need for a new veterans cemetery in Southern California. Brown signed legislation supporting the cemetery last week.

"In war we come together because we have to defend our country," Brown said, addressing politicians and veterans in full uniform. "Well, there are other times where we have to come together to defend our future."

But the governor's appearance nearly collided with a long-scheduled "runway breaking" ceremony that was meant to be a coming out party for FivePoint Communities, which is building the homes and 688 acres of parkland.

The city's efforts to build the original — and much larger — park collapsed during the recession, and FivePoint agreed to build a portion of the park, which will include a wooded area, a golf course and a sports park twice the size of Disneyland.

The developer also hired a feng shui master to ensure that the new neighborhoods to arrive with the park would appeal to Irvine's growing Asian population, and was advised that — among other things — a cemetery might cool the enthusiasm of some would-be buyers.

But on Tuesday, Emile Haddad, president and chief executive of FivePoint, didn't seem put out that the governor had crashed his party. "I couldn't be any happier," he said as crews set up a stage for the evening's demolition celebration.

Brown's appearance was brief, lauding what he emphasized was a bipartisan effort to build a state veterans cemetery on the old base.

Since Marine Corps Air Station El Toro closed in 1999, veterans groups and activists have pushed for a portion of the land to be used as a veterans cemetery. The sprawling Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood has been closed to burials for nearly 20 years, leaving Riverside National Cemetery as the only alternative for veterans.

The Irvine City Council this year voted to set aside 125 acres of the former Marine base for a cemetery.

Though officials stressed the level of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans to make the cemetery a reality, the day wasn't without some political undertones.

Brown's appearance marked the first time he had been in the county since May. Standing alongside Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who wrote the cemetery legislation, the visit seemed purposeful.

Quirk-Silva is fighting to hang onto her 65th Assembly District seat in northern Orange County and, in the bigger view, help Democrats regain their supermajority in Sacramento.

Brown downplayed any political motivation.

"Now the Finance Department opposed [the bill] because it costs money, and you know I don't like to spend money," Brown said. "But Sharon over here twisted my arm, and I decided it was a darn good cause."

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At the city level, members of the Republican City Council majority said they didn't know that the governor was headed to town until a day before he arrived.

"I know the governor is busy," said Mayor Pro-Tem Jeff Lalloway, "but I'm campaigning too."

Bill Cook, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee, arrived for Brown's speech, but said he planned to stick around for the runway demolition as well.

"We can all carry away parts of history, like it's the Berlin Wall, or something," he said.

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