A consensus is building toward placing a cemetery for Orange County veterans in Anaheim Hills now that it appears a deal to establish one in Irvine has fizzled, Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said Thursday.

Wagner, Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do and local veteran leaders held a news conference Thursday morning to tout the Gypsum Canyon site that has already been approved by the county as a cemetery on 280 acres.

“Frankly, it comes as no surprise to me” that the consensus among veterans has been coalescing around the Gypsum Canyon site, Wagner said.

One of those supporting the site is Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County. Berardino is a Marine veteran who fought in the Vietnam War.

“Irvine has put us through hell for 10 years and they have the intention of putting us through hell for another 10 years,” Berardino told City News Service.

“We’ve been kicked off every site by one group or another and there are some politicians that want to send us back into that treacherous environment and put us through 10 years of litigation, so, no, we’ve moved on,” he said. “The veterans have moved on and it’s unfortunate that we still have political leaders who are definitely demonstrating a lack of support for the veterans community.”

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, has also endorsed the Gypsum Canyon site.

“What I support, first and foremost, is a veterans cemetery in Orange County built sooner than later and Irvine has had the opportunity to build one, but can’t seem to decide where,” Correa told CNS. “They can’t seem to decide where, which tells me they aren’t interested in doing it. If you really wanted a cemetery, you’d stop the feuding and get it done a long time ago.”

The congressman said he was “disappointed and saddened” that a cemetery wasn’t among the first things developed at the Great Park, the former El Toro Marine air base.

“And here we are years later debating where to put a cemetery, debating whether there should be a cemetery at all,” Correa said. “I think we need to move ahead and build a cemetery. Enough is enough. Stop playing games with veterans.”

Wagner, a former Irvine mayor, said that when Irvine voters in 2018 shot down the so-called Strawberry Fields site along the Santa Ana (5) Freeway and Bake Parkway, “that was the death knell” for a veterans cemetery in that city.

A recent state study showed that a proposed cemetery on a golf course in the Great Park in Irvine could cost up to $75 million, and the so-called Amended and Restated Development site, also near the Great Park on the north side, would cost up to $110 million.

“The (Irvine) City Council frankly has no appetite to spend the kind of money it would take,” Wagner said. “Anaheim is receptive to a cemetery.”

Irvine City Council members Mike Carroll and Tammy Kim attended the news conference backing the Gypsum Canyon site on Thursday, while Irvine Councilman Larry Agran is continuing to tout the ARDA site, which is at the end of a runway on the old base at the Great Park.

“They may be done with Irvine, but Irvine’s not done with a veterans memorial park and cemetery,” Agran said. “In fact, Irvine has been pursuing it with considerable success since 2014 when I authored the original resolution adopted unanimously by the city council to work with the state to put a veterans memorial park and cemetery that is state-funded at the ARDA site at the Great Park.”

Agran blamed FivePoint, the developer of the Great Park, for the defections to the Anaheim Hills project.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Agran said, referring to a “land swap” agreement for the so-called Strawberry Fields site at the 5/405 freeway interchange. “Now they’re trying to do it again, first with the golf course site, which is a non-starter. It’s not going to happen. Now FivePoint and others want to create a site outside of Irvine entirely and that so-called site is Gypsum Canyon.”

Agran said backers of the Anaheim Hills site have “a long way to go to actually turn that into a state-funded memorial park and cemetery. They have to design it to submit it, they have to get enabling legislation in Sacramento for it. Years and years they’d have to go through to even begin to get started on the thing, whereas the ARDA site has gone through the entire process.”

The Gypsum Canyon site will be “extraordinarily expensive … because it is, after all, a former gravel pit and they have hillsides and landslides they have to contend with, and, I understand, a major bridge to be built in and out to make that work,” Agran said.

In December 2019, the Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed to convert 2,500 acres donated by The Irvine Co. into a cemetery — with half reserved for veterans — next to Gypsum Canyon Road near state Route 91 and the 271 toll road.

In March 2019, the board voted to reserve space in the planned Anaheim Hills cemetery not only for veterans, but also for their spouses and others who served in the military or governments of U.S. allied forces in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

“They have 10 years to develop a business plan,” Orange County CEO Frank Kim said of the Orange County Cemetery District. “The board has to approve it as a condition of permanent transfer. We look forward to them presenting a business plan. That has not occurred yet, but they have 10 years to do that work.”

Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, and Assembly members Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, had previously backed a veterans cemetery in Irvine.

“It is incredibly sad that after the state of California has spent over $2 million and others have spent millions of dollars attempting to build a cemetery on the former Marine Corps air base that over the course of eight years we haven’t accomplished it,” Umberg told City News Service.

As for which proposal he favors, Umberg said, “I favor the most expeditious manner of building a cemetery.”

A spokesman for Daly said the assemblyman does not support the Gypsum Canyon site.

Local veterans are backing the Gypsum Canyon site after previously supporting one in Irvine, according to Wagner.

“They’re all saying, `Irvine, you had your chance, but we’re going with Gypsum Canyon,”’ he said.

The Veterans Administration requires about 100 acres for a cemetery, Wagner said.

The Great Park’s developers previously offered $28 million for a veterans cemetery on a plot zoned for a golf course, but others in Irvine pushed for the Amended and Restated Development site instead.

Berardino said the ARDA site “is a toxic waste dump,” and the golf course site won’t take off because the neighbors don’t want it.

“They’re saying they absolutely don’t want this site next to their homes and schools with parades of veterans on Harley Davidsons and 21-gun salutes,” Berardino said. “They’re prepared to litigate to protect their investment while others want to use us as chess pieces in their own political games and we’re not having it. We’re getting a very clear picture who’s with us and who’s not and we don’t want any more political tricks, gamesmanship and wordsmithing.”

Correa said he attended a groundbreaking for the Strawberry Fields site and “it ended up being a cruel joke.”

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