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After years in limbo, Anaheim council backs controversial veterans cemetery

A rendering of a veteran cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
A rendering of a veteran cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
(Courtesy of Orange County Cemetery District)

The Anaheim City Council showed unanimous support this week to build a controversial veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills after years of contentious debate and political inaction.

For about a decade, veterans fought to have the cemetery constructed in Irvine, but local politicians couldn’t agree on where it should be placed.

The proposal to build the cemetery in the Gypsum Canyon area on county land in Anaheim Hills has gathered support from a host of politicians, including Orange County supervisors Don Wagner, Katrina Foley and Andrew Do; Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer and Rep. Lou Correa, among other supporters.

The Veterans Alliance of Orange County, which has advocated for the cemetery, is in support of the Anaheim Hills site, as are all Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the county and several American Legion posts.

“There won’t be any politics in Anaheim, I can assure you that we will be there with you, hand to hand, to make sure we get the money as soon as possible,” Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu said to members of the alliance at the meeting Tuesday. “The council will fight to make sure that we get that built as soon as possible.”

A rendering of a veteran cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
A rendering of a veteran cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
(Courtesy of Orange County Cemetery District)

Deputy City Manager Greg Garcia said there isn’t currently a timeline for the cemetery. But Wagner, whose district includes Anaheim Hills, has said that he would like to break ground on the cemetery later this year.

“There are a number of questions and issues with regard to funding and state legislation and coordination with CalVet, and also with the federal government on how to get this going,” Garcia said. “So there’s a lot of steps that need to take place. I think next year is ambitious, but certainly could be done if everybody gets on the same page and this momentum continues to move forward.”

Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said in an email that the next step in the process appears to be that the California Department of Veterans Affairs will do an assessment of the site.

There isn’t currently an estimated cost for the site, but Councilman Trevor O’Neil said the Board of Supervisors will consider at a meeting next week whether to devote $20 million to the veterans cemetery project.

Tim Deutsch, general manager of the Orange County Cemetery District, said in a phone interview that CalVet typically determines the cost of sites. The OC Cemetery District could develop the cemetery in partnership with the county.

A rendering of a veteran cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
A rendering of a veteran cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
(Courtesy of Orange County Cemetery District)

It appears to be a long shot for the cemetery to ever be built in Irvine.

After several officials held an event at the Anaheim Hills site earlier this month, state Sen. Tom Umberg pulled a bill that would have required the cemetery to be located in Irvine.

Veterans had grown tired of local politicians’ inability to decide where the cemetery should be built.

“For those of you vets, you know when we were in Vietnam we used to say, ‘When we die and go to heaven St. Peter we will tell, another veteran reporting sir, I’ve served my time in hell,’” VALOR president Nick Berardino said earlier this month at a press conference at the Anaheim Hills site. “I used to think that applied to Vietnam until I tried to get a cemetery in Irvine.”

One of the areas considered in Irvine, called the ARDA site, was backed by some residents and former Irvine mayor and current Councilman Larry Agran. Other officials, residents and veterans groups favored the construction of the cemetery on a piece of land in the Great Park that was once destined to be a golf course.

Both sites were part of the now-defunct El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“El Toro for many many years was in our heart,” Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, said at the Anaheim Hills press conference. “That was where a cemetery had to be, but our hearts been broken.”

The ARDA site was chosen by officials in 2014. But in 2017, another site was proposed, with FivePoint offering a land swap deal that was eventually voted down by Irvine residents in the 2018 primary elections.

Later, the council voted to build the cemetery on land that was slated to be a golf course in the Great Park.

Last year, the council then decided to support a citizens’ initiative to zone the 125-acre ARDA site for the cemetery. But after an election and a mayoral change, sentiments shifted on the council. Late last month, all hope of an Irvine-based cemetery seemed lost after the Irvine City Council could not come to an agreement on a site after a lengthy meeting.

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