Orange County veterans who have campaigned for their own cemetery for years were relieved to hear that the Board of Supervisors recently agreed to donate 280 acres near Anaheim Hills for the development of a public cemetery for both veterans and civilians.
The supervisors unanimously voted Dec. 4 to transfer the rugged strip of land south of the 91 Freeway at Gypsum Canyon Road to the Orange County Cemetery District, which has overseen the maintenance and interments at three public cemeteries since 1985. The parcel was part of a 20,000-acre donation made by Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren in 2010 to preserve open space after his company abandoned its plan to develop a residential community in the canyon.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes the future cemetery site, said he co-authored the deal with Board Chairman Andrew Do to make sure Orange County veterans and their loved ones have a burial place near their hometown. Spitzer is departing the board to take on his newly-elected position as district attorney.
“We have the ability to give [the land] back in something you can’t measure in any financial reward, monetary analysis or anything,” Spitzer said. “It’s simply the right thing to do, the right gesture. It builds incredible good will [for] the men and women who served from Orange County, and if they choose to at a future date, they can have their final resting place in Orange County.”
Veterans like Nick Berardino and Bill Cook, both leaders in the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, have grown weary in recent years of the political fights and procedural delays that have plagued the creation of a veterans cemetery in Irvine. In June, Irvine voters rejected a land swap deal between Irvine and developer FivePoint Holdings that would have moved the proposed cemetery to the strawberry fields near the intersection of the 5 and 405 freeways.
With this new direction from Irvine voters, city officials are back to examining plans for a cemetery on 125 acres of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine Boulevard and Chinon. Developing a veterans cemetery at this site is anticipated to cost up to $91 million because of the necessary environmental clean-up and demolition of 77 buildings, concrete hardscape and underground utilities remaining on the property from its former military uses.
There is currently $4.5 million in the state’s Master Development Fund for a veterans cemetery in Southern California, which falls short of the 10% needed for the Irvine site’s supporters to seek additional grant funding from CalVet, the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs. Irvine city officials estimate 2025 as the earliest possible opening date for a veterans cemetery in Irvine.
Berardino, a former member of the Orange County Fair Board who led an effort to build the Heroes Hall veterans museum at the fairgrounds, said he and his fellow Marine veterans have campaigned for a cemetery near El Toro’s former location because it was the last place thousands of Marines stood on American soil before they died in Vietnam. From a practical standpoint, the former base also offered an island of open space in suburban Orange County.
But as veterans age, the sentimental appeal of a veterans cemetery in Irvine has been eroded by veterans’ pragmatic need to plan for the end of life.
“The Irvine cemetery effort by the city has been a floating shipwreck until now,” Berardino said. “We can’t wait, and we’re not going to wait for folks to move us on the political chessboard.”
Tim Deutsch, general manager of the Orange County Cemetery District, said his agency has set aside $8 million for the development of a new cemetery. The district has agreed to the supervisors’ requirement that the remains of veterans occupy at least 50% of the new cemetery, which would likely be built in phases as members of the public request space for new caskets.
Although the supervisors unanimously approved the land donation, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett expressed concern that the board is stepping on the toes of the Irvine Planning Commission as it tries to sort out the city’s plans for a cemetery. The commission was supposed to offer feedback on analysis of the cemetery’s cost and timeline on Dec. 6 but decided to delay that discussion until Jan. 3.
She was also concerned that the Anaheim location’s hilly terrain might make it more expensive to develop than originally anticipated but ultimately joined her fellow supervisors in supporting the land donation.
Cook anticipates that the cemetery will nicely complement the natural beauty of the surrounding canyon.
“As you’re driving down the 91 Freeway, you’re going to be able to look up that hillside,” he said. “It’s going to be spectacular.”
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.