O.C. to give $20 million to help get controversial veterans cemetery built after years of delays

A rendering of the proposed veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills supported by the Anaheim City Council.
A rendering of the proposed veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills supported by the Anaheim City Council.
(Courtesy of the Orange County Cemetery District)

The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved $20 million this week toward a controversial veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills that has sat in limbo for about a decade.

The funds are expected to help move the project forward after veterans fought for years to have the cemetery constructed in Irvine. Despite their advocacy, local politicians couldn’t agree on where the cemetery should be placed.

“This gives us a fighting opportunity to get a veteran cemetery that we have been trying for years to get elsewhere,” said Supervisor Don Wagner, who proposed the item with board Chairman Andrew Do.

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 the supervisors, Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer and Rep. Lou Correa, among other supporters.

“We just need to get a final resting place for people — men and women and their families — who have served and sacrificed for our great country,” Supervisor Katrina Foley said at the board meeting.

The Anaheim City Council showed unanimous support last week for the Anaheim Hills proposal.

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.

“We’ve been trying to get a veteran’s cemetery, and we’ve been stuck in the quagmire of Irvine all of this century,” said Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation. “Your contribution will move this cemetery forward.”

Battling his own rare debilitating disease, a photojournalist hopes other military retirees may recognize themselves in these vignettes and seek help from the VA.

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.

VALOR president Nick Berardino said at the board meeting that veterans were mistreated and disrespected over the years while advocating for the cemetery in Irvine.

“We suffered in Irvine,” Berardino said. "... We got booed. We got hissed. Just like we came home from the airport in Vietnam, it was really reliving that experience. One of the most disgusting experiences.”

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.

The Flying Leathernecks Historical Foundation has proposed refurbishing a hangar at Orange County Great Park to house the museum that closed in San Diego in March.

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.

On Tuesday, Wagner took aim at supporters of the ARDA site.

“That is the site that is least acceptable to the state,” Wagner said. “It is the site that is least acceptable to the feds. It is the site that is least likely to get us a veteran cemetery any time soon.”

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