Veterans Group Speaks Out on the Cemetery Swap — Which Petty Political Bickering Can’t Be Allowed to Block

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Bill Cook , Chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation — (“OCVMP,” or maybe “OCVMPF” by now) and  a group with which I have been, sometimes am, and expect to continue to be associated — has penned what is apparently an open letter to the Irvine City Council and candidates for it.  (I’d also suggest that Sean Panahi take a look at it, as it’s address to his opponent in the 68th District Assembly Race, Steven Choi.  And Mary Ann Gaido, please understand what all three of your opponents probably already do — however much some of your supporters may disagree, being on the wrong side of this issue is what could kill your Mayoral campaign.  Pay attention to what Farrah Khan is doing!)

Irvine City Council candidate Farrah Khan (center, without facial hair) with OCVMP's Brian Chuchua, Peter Katz, Bill Cook, Louis Contreras. and ... wait. it'll come to me ....

Irvine City Council candidate Farrah Khan (center, without facial hair) at Tuesday meeting with OCVMP’s Brian Chuchua, Peter Katz, Bill Cook, Louis Contreras. and … wait. it’ll come to me …. BILL SANDLIN!

First, here’s the letter, under which I’ll offer some of my own thoughts on it and the underlying issue.

Mayor Choi, Council Members, Candidates,

Regarding our future Southern California Veterans Cemetery, we thank you for promptly posting the latest status on the City’s website thus keeping the community aware and up to date on the evolutionary events and significant milestones as they occur.

The Southern California Veterans Cemetery will become hallowed ground, a revered place of honored rest for those few who have served and sacrificed for our security and freedoms. It will represent the heritage and significance of the location, express the appreciation of the community, and bring a full complementary measure of true greatness to Irvine and Orange County’s Great Park.

CalVet/DGS have completed their cost estimate report and submitted the necessary grant request application to the VA, and we now know from the VA’s reply that we are in queue for the maximum phase one grant amount of $10M. As the VA has stated, further discussions need to be conducted “as a way forward”. We may expect that the Federal, State and community contributions will soon be defined.

With gratitude for divine providence we are indeed blessed to be in Irvine, the recipient of an RDA settlement of $292M from the State of California, a continuation of sorts for Great Park development and completion. Just a fraction of the settlement amount should very adequately provide for the initiation of the greatest segment of the Great Park. Your Veterans and many supportive citizens look forward to celebrating the announcement of your inspired leadership.

The gestation period for the Southern California Veterans Cemetery will not be short.  Demolition and removal, environmental mitigations, site preparations may be expected to consume several years before actual construction and the first of the planned 200,000 internments can begin. We must all have patience (the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery took more than 25 years) as this extended process proceeds.

At the council meeting back on April 12 of this year – prior to the release of the CalVet report – we attempted to bring to your attention the offer of an alternative cemetery site. The detail of this offer was not heard by the council, as they stated reasons for their refusal concern over legislative process and the potential sensitivities of the Federal Dept of Veterans Affairs. Since that date we have consulted with CalVet/DGS and presented the details of a privately funded alternative proposal. We can report it found favor, as it required no additional state appropriations or finance committee actions, and we have determined that necessary legislation could certainly be completed in this session.

We have also met with a representative of the VA Cemetery Grants Program. We have been advised that there is a great deal of flexibility regarding how and when a grant is exercised. And we have been told of a recent precedent of cemetery development by a non-public entity and presented to the VA/State for operations. Again, this is considered by the authorities as a very favorable option.

Now that we all have detailed knowledge on the projected costs, expected contributions, and timeline of the ARDA site Southern California Veterans Cemetery, and the anticipated bureaucratic reception of the very favorable alternative – which would also satisfy many concerned constituent residents – may we Veterans respectfully request that city representatives be available for a detailed presentation of the contents of this proposal?

We believe the alternate site offer to be very gracious and generous, the location preferred by most, accelerates the cemetery timeline, and most importantly greatly reduces costs to the community and involved agencies. In sum, a win-win for all that now deserves full consideration before the council.

We look forward to your reply.

Regards,

Bill Cook
Chairman, Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation

Others may disagree, but I think that Past American Legion District Commander Cook makes a highly compelling argument.  This swap offers enough to make pretty much everyone happy.

Veterans — and the constituency that I feel that I can represent: their loved ones — get a site that is part of the old El Toro base — something of great symbolic importance to them — even though it is not technically part of the Great Park.  MCAS El Toro — from which so many American troops flew to Vietnam, many never to return — is sacred ground to veterans; no other possible facility can substitute for its symbolic importance.  And the greater visibility of and ease of access to this site will make it all that more special.

For fans of the Great Park, it’s also a big win, presuming that it does get built — and the thrust of this letter is that feats of it being derailed are unfounded.  It is ADJACENT to the Great Park, though, and being adjacent to the freeway and almost exactly at the juncture of the 5 and 405 will surely do more to PUBLICIZE the Great Park than a site near but not visible from the freeway would do.  It surely deserves to be called an “honorary” part of the Great Park and Irvine would be crazy not to do whatever it could to officially incorporate it within the Great Park by the time construction is completed — because, in its new and INCREDIBLY VISIBLE home, this site will be a huge tourist attraction for Irvine — perhaps its largest.  And that will bring many more people into the Great Park proper.

The mainland Chinese residents, to whom the properties adjacent to the current site planned for the Great Park are being marketed, will be happy about it, of course.  While some have argued that they don’t want a cemetery anywhere near them, because of feng shui principles, this is a lot further away.  (And, truly — it’s going to be magnificent, from a flag-waving Orange County perspective.  It will become iconic OC!)

Last and, so far as I’m concerned, least: for Emile Haddad of Five Point, the developer of the housing projects that he got the new City Council to approve after he bankrolled Steven Choi’s victory over Larry Agran in the 2012 Mayor’s race, it means that he can proceed with his development unobstructed by opposition.  (Most critical to him is the prospect that, if the threat of the current Great Park site remains present for the next two ot three months,  Gang Chen could ride this issue straight to the Mayor’s seat this year.)  Haddad has a lot of money riding on this, which is why he has been willing to donate the “strawberry fields” site for the cemetery and pick up the cost of doing any new studies to prepare for a land swap.

That being so, why are we reading the likes of the following stories from the Irvine Community News, generally understood to be a pro-Agran (and by-Agran) publication?

CityWatch: Developer FivePoint Communities Works to Defeat Veterans Cemetery

According to sources in the State Capitol, before the Legislature’s Fourth of July recess, Irvine residential developer FivePoint Communities was heavily lobbying the California Veterans Affairs Department — known as CalVet — against establishing a 125-acre Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery on City-owned land in the Great Park.

Moreover, FivePoint Communities was reported to be frantically trying to enlist a State legislator — said to be Irvine Assemblyman Don Wagner, recently announced candidate for Irvine Mayor — to push through last-minute legislation  requiring CalVet to review a complicated FivePoint Communities “land-swap” scheme that would take the Veterans Cemetery out of the Great Park and put it elsewhere.  This, in turn, would give FivePoint the opportunity to build thousands of additional homes and apartments on the 125 acres of land that is now within the Great Park.

FivePoint’s secretive efforts in Sacramento have so far failed.  In fact, the CalVet design and plans for the Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery within the Great Park were completed by July 1st, on schedule, and sent to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for review and Federal approval.  The State’s estimated cost to prepare the entire 125-acre site and then to actually construct Phase I of the Cemetery is reported to be $77 million, half of which would be paid for out of the U.S. Veterans Affairs budget.

Councilmember Christina Shea, in her own continuing effort to defeat the Veterans Cemetery, immediately branded the cost as “exorbitant.”  Former Councilmember Larry Agran, himself a U.S. Army veteran and, in 2014, the Council’s leading proponent of the Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery, shot back:  “Shea should be ashamed of herself.  She says she supports veterans, but apparently not if it costs any money.”  Agran added, “The estimated cost for the Veterans Cemetery is actually very reasonable.  And it will be paid for — as it should be — mainly by the Federal and State governments.”

As for the continuing efforts of FivePoint Communities to defeat the Veterans Cemetery project, Agran said, “This was a brazen attempt by FivePoint Communities to undermine the City’s 2014 plan — approved by the State Legislature and signed by the Governor — to locate the Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery on a specific 125-acre parcel of City-owned land in our 1,300-acre Great Park.

Agran added, angrily, “Instead of helping us win final Federal approval, FivePoint Communities is apparently still pushing a so-called land-swap scheme in order to gain control of 125 acres of Great Park land, then get Council approval for thousands of additional housing units at the Great Park, and walk off with hundreds of millions of dollars in windfall profits.”  After pausing for a moment, Agran said,  “This is what corporate greed looks like.  It’s disgusting.

The thesis of this article is simply wrong.  Look, the OCVMP’s veterans collectively have a much higher stake in getting this built than Agran does, and if they thought for a moment that this patently sensible proposed sway was a backdoor way to defeat any cemetery at all, they would not be supporting it.  These are not stupid people!  And their eyes are wide open.  The greater threat to the Veterans Cemetery is that, even while it seems like it should be in the bag, Haddad and his powerful allies would be able to find a way to spike it before it came into existence.  This takes that prospect entirely away.

That said, the extraneous complaints in the letter, expressed in the last 2-1/2 paragraphs, are in my opinion largely true.  Yes, the federal and state governments should foot the bills — although I’d shy away from saying that without a swap they definitely will.  Yes, FivePoint did brazenly unravel Agran’s beloved “Master Plan” for the Great Park — and its 2014 amendment to insert the cemetery plan.

Those paragraphs — essentially dictated by Agran — make clear that Agran is still royally pissed at FivePoint for:

  • ruining his beloved Master Plan for the Great Park
  • using illegal means (don’t even argue with me about that) to defeat him in the Mayor’s race
  • installing a Council that would impose what he can reasonably describe as a witch hunt against him (even though there was some “witchery” to be found there among his less savory allies)
  • humiliating him in the 2014 City Council race, and
  • if they get their way here, pretty much getting away with all of it.

I understand his anger and I think that much of it is well-placed.  But he has to let go of it now.

YES, FivePoint will make a lot more money if the land-swap goes through — but it will also have contributed far much more to Irvine and the general good of Orange County and its veterans than it EVER would have in the absence of Agran’s victories in 2013-14.

I’ll put this bluntly: we advocates of a Veterans Cemetery in Irvine are in the business of achieving the creation of a Veterans Cemetery in Irvine.  We are NOT in the business of getting in the way of FivePoint making a lot more mone,y so long as that doesn’t prevent us from reaching our objective.  We don’t have to like it — and personally, I don’t.  I don’t like what their intervention has done to Irvine.  But that is not the issue at hand here.  Getting revenge on FivePoint is SIMPLY NOT THE ISSUE HERE!

Do I sense some people cheering at my slap at Agran there?  Great — now you’re going to hate what I have to say next.

Years from now, and for many decades after that, a Veteran’s Cemetery at the freeway adjacent to the Great Park will rightly be seen as Larry Agran’s greatest and most lasting achievement.

That Agran ultimately opposed its move, for what will then (rightly) be dismissed as petty political reasons, will be forgotten.  (Political history is rife with those sorts of ironies.)  What will be remembered is that there were three people who were absolutely essential to getting the Veterans Cemetery built: Bill Cook, Sharon Quirk-Silva, and Larry Agran.

This was considered to be a virtually impossible effort in mid-December 2013, when Sharon Quirk-Silva — having just that morning been appointed to be the new chair of Assembly Committee on Veterans Affairs — first spoke to Larry Agran and Beth Krom at the OC Labor Federation Holiday about the possibility of building a Veterans Cemetery in the Great Park.  (As someone who was there watching that conversation from a respectful distances at the time, I can testify that this conversation clearly excited and cheered up Agran, who was still visibly feeling wounded from his political opponents having successfully steamrolled what he seemed to believe had been his politically impregnable Master Plan.)  And as one who was intimately active in the efforts to get the process going for much of the rest of that year, I can also testify to this: none of this ever would have happened had not Agran and Quirk-Silva not been absolutely at the top of their game.  They were absolutely essential.  Others made a significant difference — Krom as Agran’s loyal ally, Jeff Lalloway breaking from his Republican allies (at the time) as the critical third vote, Melissa Fox for breathing enough heat onto Lalloway’s neck to where he had to provide that vote, and countless others in OCVMP and the state government — but only two people were steering the legislative ship through mine-laced waters: Agran at home and Quirk-Silva in Sacramento.

Just as Agran has to swallow his bile at FivePoint for outmaneuvering him, so do Agran’s critics have to swallow their bile at him for the prospect that that Veterans Cemetery on the Strawberry Fields will go down in history as a testament to his vision, no matter what the political machinations of the moment.  He made this happen; whatever else one might say about him, good or bad, he completely and brilliantly earned this credit.  Just live with it.

And anyone who values kicking Agran in the butt — just like anyone who values kicking FivePoint in the butt — for political gain or for personal satisfaction, at this time when political compromise is the path to victory, is simply failing to show veterans, those who love them and, the future residents of and visitors to the City and County that will contain this future landmark, the respect that they deserve.

Let’s put politics aside and get this memorial done!


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)