(Late) Memorial Day Weekend Open Thread”: Cemetery Bill May Doom Cemetery




The Great Park, with ARDA in pink, and the Golf Course in, um, one of the parts that looks like a golf course! (We’ll get back to you on that.)


[Ed. Note: I regret that I’ve been too tied up to write much recently.  I’ve been doing much of my writing on a closed Facebook page for those who will be involved in the upcoming California Democratic Party’s election for Chair — the one in which Chumley has endorsed Lenore Albert, which is surely a great way to burnish one’s reputation among delegates! — and haven’t been focusing here.  But I’ve also continued to follow events in Irvine, from the City Council appointment to the (not unrelated) placement of the Veteran’s Cemetery, if one ever gets built there (which, sad to say, I increasingly doubt.)  So Memorial Day — which in future years would likely have its largest celebration at such a site — truly invites no better topic of local interest than this.  — GAD]

Assemblwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva introduced a well-intentioned bill, AB 368, to ensure funding for a Verteran’s cemetery in Irvine.  There’s only one problem with it: it might instead kill off any chance of building one.

Some background that most (by maybe not all) readers will already know: Three Irvine sites have at various times received serious consideration as a site for the Irvine Veterans Cemetery.  (A fourth, an FBI firing range, never really got off the ground.)

(1) The Background

The first, ARDA — which stands for “Amended and Restated Development Agreement” — was the site at the take-off-and landing of the runway used by aircraft at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro (MCAS).  Because this is where planes were fueled, a lot of toxins were splilled on the ground, and it is considered to be a toxic waste dump.  Avoiding the costs of such a clean-up is why Irvine didn’t want it included in the land that was designated to become the Great Park.  ARDA was opposed from the start by Emil Haddad’s company Five Point, which owned adjacent land on which it was building and selling houses, targeting Chinese investors who wanted to move money out of China to burgeoning California.  ARDA was also opposed by other Asian residents in the area (proximity to a graveyard nearby was considered unlucky) and parents of students at Portola High School (in part because 21-gun salutes are not what people want to hear near schools these days); it was also considered an inferior choice by people who had read the Department of Veterans Affairs regulations for federal cemeteries and knew that they required that the cemeteries not be bisected by a road — such as Cadence Road, which bisects ARDA — and by people who preferred not to incure the cost of removing toxic waste, concrete, and dilapidated buildings from the site if there was a better option.

Deposed former Mayor Larry Agran, stinging from the City Councils tearing up his (almost all unrealized) plans for the Great Park (which had been a major theme used in removing him from office) loved the idea because (1) it could become a new anchor for the Great Park (despite not being within its approved borders) but also because (2) it would be a royal pain in the ass for Five Point, whom he blames in large part for his political demise.  If it did turn off present and potential residents, it would reduce the value of the nearby homes and possibly put Five Point at risk for lawsuits among those who had already bought, aside from reduce its expected profit from new homes.  At first the second reason seemed subsidiary; it now seems (to some of us observers, at least) to be his primary motivation.

Five Point at some point realized that it might be better to cooperate than fight.  It had some land down at the other end of the runway — past the runway, in fact, being area where an approaching or departing plane culd safely land, in the event of an emergency, without landing on the nearby I-5 freeway.  Like ARDA, it was officially part of MCAS El Toro — the area over which departing planes became safely airborne — but not part of the Great Park itself.  Because the point was that people and buildings shouldn’t be there, it was zoned for agricultural use — eventually for fields of strawberries.  Five Point was willing to swap this site near the junction of I-5  and I-405 — soon dubbed “Strawberry Fields” — to Irvine for the ARDA site; this became known as “The Swap.”  They would donate some amount for the first stage of construction and receive other considerations for re-zoning of ARDA — although even if they built a hotel there it would not clearly lead to more new traffic than would a veterans cemetery.  Being freeway-adjacent would provide greater visibility to the Memorial Park — as Costco, a Marriott hotel, and the Irvine Spectrum had discovered — and it was also right near the Irvine Metro Station.  Veterans were relieved to accept the idea.  Everybody wins, right?

Almost everybody,  “Everybody” would have included Five Point — and that Agran could not abide.  So he ginned up a referendum to repeal the Council’s vote for The Swap, marketed it under “Save the Great Park Cemetery” theme — which, again, ARDA was no more of than was Strawberry Fields — and got people to vote it down.  (There’s chatter that the powerful Irvine Company was supportive of Agran’s efforts to spike a windfall for its competitor.)

So, buoyed by a deceptive smear campaign, the referendum passed last year, and Strawberry Fields was out of the picture.  (I’m not sure why it still is — the City Council could pass a similar set of resolutions if it wished — but that seems to be so.)  Agran has tried to argue that the vote also therefore reinstated ARDA as a going concern, but I’m not aware of this view attracting support outside of his claque.

A third site was proposed — I think it came only after the referendum — by Strawberry Fields proponent Councilwoman Melissa Fox.  (Mayor Christins Shea may also have been in from the outset.)  This was to repurpose a planned golf course for the Great Park to being a Veterans Cemetery.  The Golf Course site is around the middle of the MCAS runway — and is the only one of the three that actually is part of the Great Park itself.  (As such, it would technically go against Agran’s dead and mostly decomposed “Master Plan” for the Great Park — but would be an actual “veteran’s cemetery in the Great Park,” so one would think he’d support it — if he’s not primarily just out to screw Five Point.)

Supervisor Don Wagner apparently thinks that a site in Anaheim Hills, just down the pike from the Riverside veterans cemetery, is still a possibility.  Anaheim Hills is not going to happen, Mr. Wagner.

And that takes us to the present day.

AB 368

This Assembly session, Quirk-Silva introduced a bill that would specify that a state-owned  Veterans Cemetery — remember the “Cadence Road” problem for federal ones — would be built on the (presumably remediated, though I don’t see any funding there) ARDA site.  Here’s the text of the initial bill (with internal spacing between sections added for clarity):



Section 1410 of the Military and Veterans Code is amended to read:


(a) (1) Pursuant to Section 1412, the department, in voluntary cooperation with local government entities in the County of Orange, shall acquire, study, design, develop, construct, and equip a state-owned and state-operated Southern California Veterans Cemetery, which shall be located at a site within the County of Orange.the site of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, on 125 acres known as the Amended and Restated Development Agreement Site in the Orange County Great Park in the City of Irvine.

(2) The department shall oversee and coordinate the acquisition, study, design, development, and construction of the cemetery.
(3) For purposes of this chapter, “department” means the Department of Veterans Affairs.
(b) (1) Subject to the eligibility requirements described in Section 2402 of Title 38 of the United States Code, as it may be amended, honorably discharged veterans, their spouses, and eligible dependent children are eligible for interment in the cemetery. The department shall establish a fee to be charged for interment of veteran spouses and eligible dependent children. The amount of the fee shall not exceed the reasonable costs to the department for interment in the cemetery.

(2) Subject to Section 1418, for the purposes of this subdivision, the department shall adopt regulations to specify the eligibility requirements for interment in the cemetery.

(3) All fees received pursuant to paragraph (1) shall be deposited in the Southern California Veterans Cemetery Perpetual Maintenance Fund created pursuant to Section 1412.

Forget for the moment that ARDA is not in the Great Park (so that “in” should eventually become “adjacent to”) and that there won’t be any Great Park built without funding for remediation and unless Katie Porter and Harley Rouda (and I’d presume Rep. Gil Cisneros) can get the Trump Administration to fund remediation, perhaps by changing the name to the Donald John Trump Veterans Cemetery, there ain’t gonna be any such thing built   Consider a more significant problem.

The present City Council is likely to block its construction!

I count one or two votes out of five that would clearly vote for this proposal.  Melissa Fox, who has been involved with this effort almost as long as I have, though with greater effect.  And I can count exactly one behemoth that would presumably want to stop this plan if they can (and they probably can): Five Point.  Emil Haddad does not want the cemetery built here, though I’m guessing that any lawsuits that might be brought against him for failing to warn buyers of this possibility are pretty much void by some statute of limitations by now, and any losses from the houses that have been built since this possibility arouse would fall entirely on their owners.

Fox had one ally on the City Council for the Strawberry Fields site: Christina Shea, who has always been a supporter of Five Point’s position.  I presume that she would provide a second vote for the Golf Course site.

Shea and Fox diverge in that while Fox would support the ARDA site if the Golf Course site is not possible, Shea probably wouldn’t.  So the score there so far is Golf 2-0, ARDA 1-1.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that Anthony Kuo will stand by the felt interests of Irvine’s Asian residents and reject any site.  If so, it’s now Golf 2-1, ARDA 1-2.  ARDA would need to run the table to be approved; Golf need only one more vote.

That leaves Farrah Khan and her (in effect, “her”) new appointee, Mike “the NPP” Carroll.

I’m told that former Planning Commissioner Carroll was no fan of ARDA.  If he was, I doubt if he’d have gotten the two Republicans’ votes.  His vote would kill ARDA.  If he pulled the trigger, then Farrah could vote for it — Democrats tend to support it — and claim that her hands are clean.  (In fact, appointing an opponent of ARDA is the only way that Farrah would have been excused from having to cast the deciding vote against it herself.) While Carroll’s vote on the Golf Course site is unclear, I see no reason why Farrah wouldn’t be happy to cast a deciding vote for it.  So: 1-3-1 on ARDA, 3-1-1 on the Golf Course.

Chumley has assured us that Carroll’s meeting with Khan, Five Point lobbyist Patrick Strader, and Farrah’s strategist/fundraiser/consultant/boss/whatever Melahat Rafiei — whom I’ve been told also worked for Five Point, which would have been an excellent investment for them if they wanted to kill ARDA — had nothing to do with anything Five Point, that he was there for a later meeting with some among the group and showed up early.  It is here where I have to take tie to assess Chumley’s credibility, which might take a few secon — no, that was quick, I don’t believe anything that the torqued-conscienced flack says.  (His track record is, shall we say, not good.)

Now here’s the sad part: there probably could be a coalition put together — Fox and Shea, and Farrah and or Carroll (or whoever replaces him if he votes against it) — to put the veteran’s cemetery on the Golf Course site!  The biggest obstacle to it would be … this very legislation!  This legislation — which at least one critic credits to Quirk-Silva listening to Agran (whom she may not realize went “Mad Queen”) about how to write it — says that the state-owned and state-operated Southern California Veterans Cemetery “in the Great Park” can only be in one place — ARDA.  And that may just prove to be impossible.  (Emil Haddad hasn’t even started with his litigation yet!)

There’s a really easy fix to this: give the City Council a choice.  Just have the legislation authorize either ARDA or the Golf Course site within one year of its enactment (if one wants to be strict) or two years (if one wants to let it be an issue in the next election), or else lose the whole thing.  Then let them figure out what they have a majority for — or else face the wrath of veterans and voters..

I hope that Sharon will be willing to accept such an amendment.  Otherwise, I’m afraid that she’ll have put in a great deal of effort — in what I believe has been good faith — for nothing.

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.)