First responders could have spot in planned veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills

Veterans and local city officials unfurl "Flag One" for the proposed veteran's cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
Veterans and local city officials unfurl “Flag One” for the proposed veteran’s cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A plot of 10 acres on the public side of a planned veterans cemetery could be set aside for police officers and firefighters who served in Orange County.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors supported the proposal on Tuesday after it was put forward by Supervisor Don Wagner. They will now wait for a decision from the Orange County Cemetery District.

For the record:

3:42 p.m. March 10, 2022An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that the proposed 10-acre plot for law enforcement would be on the public side of the cemetery.

“The idea here is to say thank you and provide a dedicated resting place for the men and women of the police and fire services who have donated a significant portion of their careers to the service of the people of Orange County,” Wagner said at the meeting.

The 10-acre plot would be part of the veterans cemetery at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills. Following about a decade of contentious debate and political inaction, Orange County officials and veterans appear to be moving forward with the cemetery. For many years, veterans fought to have the cemetery constructed in Irvine, but local politicians couldn’t agree on where it should be placed.

Veterans and city officials gather for a photo during a groundbreaking for a Veterans Cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Wagner noted while speaking about the item that the board was meeting on the same day that funeral services were being held in honor of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella, who died last month while on duty in a helicopter crash.

“But this idea goes above and beyond merely that one sacrifice, as heart wrenching and as important it is,” Wagner said.

Wagner said that the proposal has received “enormous” support from the Orange County Fire Chief’s Assn., Orange County Sheriff’s Department, a number of local cities and the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, which has advocated for the cemetery.

Wagner said the alliance recognized that the plot for first responders would not diminish the veterans component of the cemetery but would rather enhance it by increasing the dignity of the site.

Wagner said the board will need to work with other organizations to come up with a criteria for who will be buried in the plot — such as how many years they would need to have served in Orange County, or if they died in the line of duty before serving a certain amount of years.

Supervisor Katrina Foley was supportive of the effort but asked whether grant funding could be pursued to help with the construction of the cemetery. Wagner said he didn’t know if grants would be available due to the uniqueness of the proposal.

“With respect to the grant issue, I don’t know whether there would be grants available because what, frankly, came as a surprise to me when we were looking into this item, is that it hasn’t been done anywhere else that we can find,” Wagner said. “Certainly not in any scale that has made national news ... We will be, as best we can tell, the first of its kind in the nation.”

Veterans and local city officials carry "Flag One" to its new home for the Veterans Cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
Veterans and local city officials carry “Flag One” to its new home for a veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The move from the Board of Supervisors is another step forward for a veterans cemetery that was bogged down in city politics for many years 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 Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

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.

In 2020, the council 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 when, after a lengthy meeting, the Irvine City Council couldn’t come to an agreement.

All 34 Orange County cities have expressed support for the Anaheim Hills site. The massive support for the site was evidenced at a groundbreaking for the cemetery in December, as all five county supervisors attended along with city representatives.

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