Orange County supervisors Tuesday approved spending $20 million to move forward with plans for a veterans cemetery in Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills.
The move ratcheted up a political struggle with supporters of the Gypsum Canyon site and those who support another site in Irvine’s Great Park.
Supervisor Don Wagner, the former mayor of Irvine, noted that he “got involved in this … back in 2014” when he was an Assemblyman.
“I was co-author with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva’s bill that sought to bring a veterans cemetery to Irvine,” Wagner said. The site at that time was the so-called Amended and Restated Development, or ARDA, at the end of a runway at the old El Toro military base, which was ultimately developed into the Great Park.
“The ARDA site was always just a place holder and was never recognized as the best site,” Wagner said.
Wagner brushed aside one veteran’s reference to the ARDA site as “hallowed ground” and preferred by veterans.
“It’s not hallowed ground,” Wagner said. “It’s the one site they’re just insistent on. And that is the site that is the least acceptable to the state. It is the site that is least acceptable to the feds. It is the site least likely to get us a veterans cemetery any time soon, the Veterans Administration said. That site is too polluted for them to participate in. The state has said that site is well more expensive than either the Strawberry Field site or the golf course site and at this point even the Irvine City Council has said they’re not interested.”
Wagner said the area’s veterans organizations have now turned their support toward the Gypsum Canyon site.
“We have bipartisan support,” Wagner said, pointing to Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, and Assemblyman Steven Choi, R-Irvine, as examples among many local politicians backing the Anaheim Hills site.
Doug Chaffee, vice chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said the Gypsum Canyon site is “beautiful” and is “easily accessible.” He also noted that the county owns the land.
“I strongly support this item to do the right thing for our veterans,” Chaffee said.
Supervisor Katrina Foley said she comes from a family of military veterans and also supports the Gypsum Canyon site.
“It is very important to me that we just move forward and make a decision instead of leaving this issue to linger,” Foley said. “I will support the motion enthusiastically. We just need to get a final resting place for people.”
Board Chairman Andrew Do noted he was 12 when he arrived in the United States as a refugee from war-torn Vietnam.
“I am now a 58-year-old man,” Do said. “Think of the people who fought for us back then. We don’t have a lot of time. So when we think of the sacrifices they made fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia, pushing back against the tide of communism. That’s why it’s so important we keep sight of what it is that we’re doing here.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said, “We’ve been watching what was happening in Irvine relative to the two sites… It’s a travesty. There was just no way for them to come to an agreement. There was simply no agreement between the residents and the powers-to-be in Irvine.”
Bartlett said she “fully realizes that Gypsum Canyon is hilly and has some challenges” to develop as a cemetery, “But we need to find a location and we have a location.”
Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, told board members, “I’m kind of speechless. This has been a long time coming.”
Berardino, who is a Marine veteran and fought in the Vietnam War, noted that veterans were jeered at Irvine City Council meetings as they pushed for a cemetery.
“We were booed, we got hissed, just like when we came home at the airport from Vietnam,” he said. “It was one of the most disgusting experiences. But every time the vets have come to this board it has been a history of support.”