Letter to CA Legislature

Re: Location of the Southern California Veterans Cemetery

To California State Legislators:

We are writing to you in our capacity as Chair and Board members of Veterans for the ARDA Site Cemetery organization. We represent thousands of military veterans and their families throughout the greater Orange County area, many of whom have a desperate need to select a burial location for themselves or their loved ones. Our group of volunteers has worked for years to establish a State Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery in the City of Irvine.

Maintaining the State Veterans Cemetery on the CalVet-approved ARDA* Site at the Great Park in Irvine, on the grounds of the former MCAS El Toro, continues to garner widespread support throughout the City of Irvine. A referendum in June 2018 (Measure B) to move the State Veterans Cemetery from the ARDA site to a site next to the I-5/I-405 freeway interchange was defeated in an overwhelming 63% to 37% vote, with 29,000 “No” votes. In fact, 91% of City of Irvine voting precincts voted overwhelmingly to support the ARDA site location in that Referendum.

More recently, on May 12, 2020, the Irvine City Council adopted our citizen-led Initiative, with 19,795 signatures, to zone permanently and exclusively the 125-acre ARDA site as a State Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery. To begin construction, and negotiation with the State for transfer of the ARDA site continues to require only a “Yes” vote from an Irvine City Council majority, which has been the case since 2017.

The ARDA site has been comprehensively studied by CalVet, resulting in a 333-page Concept Plan published in June 2016. In September 2016 it was approved for the federal Veterans Cemetery Grants Program and is still listed on the Priority List for a grant of $10 million.

On June 22, 2021, the Irvine City Council inexplicably took a “no action” vote to move forward on the ARDA site and instead opted to wait for evaluation of a new, alternative 4th site, Gypsum Canyon, near the Riverside County border. While our group finds the continued emergence of new, unstudied sites disheartening, we commissioned our own report (attached) that reviews the transfer documents and land-use restrictions from The Irvine Company to the County of Orange; geotechnical, biological and environmental reports; easement restrictions; backbone infrastructure issues; and input from local area residents in the adjacent communities of Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda. Based on what our commissioned research has uncovered, we have serious concerns about the viability of Gypsum Canyon for development of any kind, and strongly urge CalVet to consider these issues prior to undertaking yet another costly and lengthy study process.

We are continuing to request and receive additional information and documents regarding Gypsum Canyon and will communicate additional issues as we uncover them. Listed below are a small portion of the material issues and concerns we have with Gypsum Canyon taken from the attached report:

  1. The approximately 283.3 acres out of 1,073.9 acres in Gypsum Canyon were gifted to the County of Orange in 2014 as part of a 2,500-acre Gift Deed from The Irvine Company. The Irvine Company received significant federal and state tax credits in exchange for the Gift Deed. The majority of the land is encumbered by a restrictive Conservation Easement severely restricting activities on the land in order to preserve the open space in perpetuity.

    Further, the 283.3 acres was gifted with restrictions that the land be utilized “in a manner consistent with the limitations of County Service Area 26, the principal funding source for the regional park system.” County Service Area No. 26 is defined by the County of Orange as follows: “Established by the County as the successor to the Harbor, Beaches and Parks District as the repository for funding, real property and all other assets for all County of Orange owned, operated, and managed regional parks, beaches, and recreational use.” It is our understanding that OC Parks planned for a mountain bike park on the most degraded portions of the property and a system of hiking trails that would be in compliance with the gift deed.

    Simply put, no portion of Gypsum Canyon can be legally developed as a cemetery of any kind based on the gift restrictions. In addition, it is our belief that a for-profit cemetery that circumvents the donative intent of the gift would likely negate the tax benefits granted The Irvine Company, plus penalties and interest if reversed.
  2. Gypsum Canyon has significant and consequential geotechnical, biological and environmental issues that would impact initial development and ongoing annual maintenance of the property. Specifically, the property use included a sand and gravel, and asphalt plant operation which has seriously degraded the soil conditions. There are three active landslides on the property and other landslide areas immediately outside the property boundaries posing ongoing risks to any development and public use. Numerous protected species of plants, animals, and mammals are identified in an independent Conservation Easement Report. Due to habitat linkages, development of a cemetery would have significant and detrimental effects on these species. Challenges from numerous environmental groups and other parkland advocates would be expected.
  3. CalFire has listed Gypsum Canyon as a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” and has had numerous fires that destroyed nearby residential homes including as recently as 2017. Water lines are over 2 miles from the site and with ongoing water and climate issues, we have concerns regarding the ability to adequately address these risks. Due to worsening climate change, we expect water and fire issues to only worsen in the coming years.
  4. The adjacent residential neighborhoods of Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills have become alarmed at the prospect of development in Gypsum Canyon. Their rationale encompasses all the points we have previously outlined and others including significant traffic and pollution concerns. In our discussions with residents, we have found at least two groups that have independently formed to fight the development of Gypsum Canyon. Currently, petitions are being circulated among the residential communities, and we expect their City Councils, legislators, and CalVet to be contacted in the near future regarding their concerns.

These are just a portion of our concerns regarding Gypsum Canyon. Thus, we conclude that based on what we have uncovered so far, this site would take the longest to complete, and initial development plus material ongoing maintenance would cost far more than for the ARDA site. There are numerous veterans, environmental, neighborhood and land-use parties that most likely will bring prolonged litigation to a Gypsum Canyon effort.

The ARDA Site continues to be the most cost-effective, timely and historically significant site, containing the iconic control tower, original hangars, and flight line, for the delivery and operation of a State Veterans Cemetery.

Our group remains committed to locating and building a State Veterans Cemetery on the best and most appropriate site that can be delivered to our veterans in the shortest amount of time, and that continues to be, by far, on the ARDA site. It is also the most convenient site for Orange County and Los Angeles veterans and their families.

Frank McGill
Capt. USAF 1968-1974

Eugene Kaplan
Capt. USAF 1964-1970

Larry Bales
USN 1967-1969
Board Member

Bil Aulenbach
Capt. USMC 1953-1960
Board Member

Raymond Cordova
US Army 1956-1963
Board Member