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Why did Irvine finance a report for a state veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills?

Orange County Register - 5/31/2024

Irvine officials discussed this week a nearly $60,000 technical review  — funded by the city — of a proposed veterans cemetery in Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills — a cemetery that will ultimately be financed largely by the state.

The discussion left some Irvine residents and Councilmember Tammy Kim questioning why Irvine paid for a review of a project happening miles away.

The answer winds from Orange County’s long history without a veterans cemetery and Irvine Councilmember Larry Agran’s unrelenting advocacy to build one in Irvine’s Great Park — the former site of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Orange County is the largest county in the state without a veteran’s cemetery. After about a decade of fruitlessly planning for one at two different locations at the Great Park, another proposal has moved forward to create the veterans cemetery in Gypsum Canyon using part of land near the 91 and 241 freeways already slated for a civilian cemetery.

In December, the California Department of Veterans Affairs, or CalVet, deemed after its own review the Anaheim Hills veterans cemetery plan feasible. Phase one of the project would create space for more than 200,000 burials on 156 acres, costing $123 million and taking 10 years.

The catch, as of that report’s publication, is the project had only about $45 million of support pledged from the county and the state. Ultimately, it is the state’s decision where to build a veterans cemetery in Orange County and the state and county’s responsibility to finance it — state officials are expected to be applying soon for a round of federal funding to help.

Agran said Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, a key force behind the project at the state level, invited public comments after CalVet’s feasibility study was released late last year. So, concerned about the high cost estimated relative to the Great Park option, which although stalled at the moment has in the past been eligible for funding from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Agran said he made a request to Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi to review the state’s feasibility study of Gypsum Canyon.

He said that in a public meeting earlier this year he requested city staff to evaluate the state’s report, a move that received no objections and that he said was not an unusual request. Chi outsourced the review to a geotechnical consulting firm, leading to a formal report and an almost $60,000 contract.

“That he referred the study out to a geotechnical firm I think was a good idea because that firm is independent in the sense that nobody could accuse the city staff of trying to bias their review one way or the other,” Agran said. Chi did not respond to requests for comment.

Irvine Councilmember and Great Park Chairman Mike Carroll described Tuesday’s review of the city-commissioned report as a “receive and file” matter. That means the item becomes part of the historical record, but is no longer up for discussion or pending action by the council.

“It’s a mere presentation, any of the five of us are allowed to agendize anything we damn well please,” Carroll said. “And I will be doing a lot of it between now and the November election on different subjects to see how everybody feels about them.”

The 13-page study by Costa Mesa-based Geosyntec Consultants reviewed publicly available documents related to the Gypsum Canyon site’s civil engineering, seismicity and potential environmental hazards. It also briefly compared Gypsum Canyon costs to a Great Park alternative.

Agran argues a veterans cemetery in Irvine will be “better, cheaper and faster” to build than the project in Anaheim Hills.

Chi told councilmembers Tuesday that the Irvine cemetery would cost about $42.5 million to complete and the Geosyntec report said phase one of an Irvine project could be completed in three to four years.

While many veterans groups support Gypsum Canyon, some individuals expressed concern to the Irvine council about the additional time to build that project.

“I am 78 years old, and in the report that we reviewed, it will be at least 10 years before Gypsum Canyon is ready for any veterans to be buried there,” said Irvine resident and veteran Frank McGill. “I don’t think I’m going to live that long. I hope I do, but I’m not counting on it.”

There is no pending action item regarding Tuesday’s receive and file presentation, but Agran remains cautious about the state’s prospects of completing the Gypsum Canyon cemetery on time and on budget. He “implored people to look at the study” and said he believes — based on the recent study — the project could cost “tens of millions of dollars” more than the feasibility study suggested.

“There’s so many questions here,” he said. “The feasibility study cost estimate does not include any freeway on-ramps or off-ramps at that very complex intersection. Nor does it include any improvements on the frontage roads and Santa Ana Canyon Road.

“The (state) legislature needs to have its eyes wide open on this,” he added. “We’re probably talking about $250 million to $300 million, probably much more.”

The Geosyntec Consultants report identified some discrepancies and concerns within previous public documents related to the Gypsum Canyon location. Specifically, the report pinpointed engineering challenges that could cost upwards of $20 million to address. For instance, the consultants say that landslide mitigation costs at the site could exceed previous estimates by roughly $8 million. The Anaheim Hills land had been used for surface mining for 40 years, and in some areas it is now approximately 300 feet lower in elevation than it used to be.

The consultants also said there could be previously unreported problems related to legacy environmental contamination and potential environmental concerns stemming from when the land was used as a rocket fuel testing site for McDonnell Douglas/Astropower between 1961 and 1991.

“I’m not saying it won’t be done,” Agran said about why he thought it was important to raise awareness about these concerns. “But let’s be sober realists about this.”

While Agran said he believes the site at the Great Park is “almost a turnkey operation,” he is not sure where the rest of the Irvine City Council would stand on approving that project since it hasn’t been taken to a vote.

City, county and state officials — aside from Agran — seem unfazed by the costs and challenges of Gypsum Canyon. The project enjoys endorsements from all five county supervisors and 170 local elected officials from every city in Orange County, including Irvine. It has unanimous bipartisan support from state and federal delegation members and endorsements from more than 100 veterans groups.

“We are aware that a report prepared by Geosyntec Consultants has recently raised several potential issues regarding the Gypsum Canyon site,” Quirk-Silva wrote in a letter to the Irvine council co-signed by nine other state officials who represent Orange County. “However, we firmly believe that these concerns can and should be addressed without altering the course of this vital project. The significant public support and the considerable progress made thus far underscore the suitability of Gypsum Canyon for this cemetery.”

The OC Board of Supervisors echoed state officials in a letter of its own.

“CalVet’s feasibility study, released to the public in January, demonstrates Gypsum Canyon is an appropriate location to qualify for a federal designation by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs,” its letter reads, adding: “Orange County stands united in its support for Gypsum Canyon as the home for a final resting place for our veterans and their families that is worthy of their selfless service to our nation. We urge Irvine to continue its own support for this monumental legacy project.”

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