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In Irvine visit, governor praises veterans cemetery effort

In Irvine visit, governor praises veterans cemetery effort
Gov. Jerry Brown, with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, right, and other dignitaries, speaks Tuesday at the Great Park in Irvine, the planned site of Orange County's first veterans cemetery. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot)

Gov. Jerry Brown made a quick appearance in Irvine on Tuesday to laud what he emphasized is a bipartisan effort to build a state veterans cemetery at the Orange County Great Park, a former military air base.

"In war we come together because we have to defend our country," Brown told a crowd of politicians, members of the media and veterans in formal uniforms. "Well, there are other times where we have to come together to defend our future."

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Last month, Brown signed Assembly Bill 1453, which cleared the way to establish the cemetery. The bill directs the California Department of Veterans Affairs to work on design and development of the cemetery and appropriates $500,000 for the department to seek federal funds to cover costs.

Since Marine Corps Air Station El Toro closed in 1999, local veterans have pushed for some of the land to be used for a veterans cemetery.

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As plans for the Great Park took shape and the possibility of an international airport being built at the site waned, Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee Chairman Bill Cook and others kept the cemetery idea alive.

Earlier this year, the committee saw an opportunity to raise the issue again after approval of a scaled-back vision of the park, to be built with the help of private developer FivePoint Communities in exchange for the right to build more homes around the park.

But the developer worried that a cemetery might harm property values in surrounding neighborhoods, where homes are being heavily marketed to Asian buyers, who could perceive a nearby cemetery as creating bad feng shui.

Ultimately, though, the Irvine City Council voted unanimously to set aside 125 acres of the park for the cemetery.

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"This is going to be a great contribution to the Great Park," Cook said, thanking the governor for his signature on the bill.

Though officials emphasized that cooperation between Democrats and Republicans made the cemetery a reality, the day wasn't without political overtones.

Tuesday's event marked a rare appearance in Orange County for Brown, who used the chance to stump for the cemetery bill's author, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Fullerton Democrat locked in a tight race to keep her seat.

"The [state] 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."

Democrats are battling to hang on to their supermajority in the Assembly. But Brown urged members of the audience to look beyond party lines and "look at the person, look at what they're doing and look at our future."

The governor's spokesman, Evan Westrup, said Brown most recently had been in Orange County in May for meetings in Santa Ana and Irvine with law enforcement and education officials.

Members of Irvine's Republican City Council majority said they didn't know the governor was headed for their city this week until the day before he arrived.

The timing of Brown's visit, they said, was a bit inconvenient, given that it was scheduled for just hours before FivePoint was set to have a "runway breaking" event to kick off construction of a 688-acre portion of the park.

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Councilwoman Christina Shea said that while she was excited to honor veterans this week, she had thought a "nonpartisan" event celebrating the cemetery would be held after the November elections.

In any case, Cook said he planned to celebrate alongside FivePoint at the runway breaking.

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

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