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veterans cemetery Petitioners gather enough signatures for referendum

OC Post-Irvine World News - 12/28/2017

IRVINE -- It likely will be up to Irvine residents next year to decide the fate of the first military veterans cemetery in Orange County.

The Orange County registrar of voters has verified petitioners collected enough signatures to hold a referendum over the Irvine City Council's decision on a land swap that would put the cemetery near the I-5/I-405 interchange, the city announced Dec. 21.

Supporters of the Save the Veterans Cemetery petition campaign want the city to stick to the original plan and donate its land north of the Orange County Great Park to the state for the cemetery.

"I'm delighted," said Edward Pope, an Army veteran who started the campaign to put the issue on a ballot.

"It's the most beautiful example of civic participation I've seen in this town."

Pope submitted 19,140 signatures a few hours before the Nov. 9 deadline.

The referendum required at least 11,939 qualified signatures - 10 percent of the city's registered voters.

However, Mayor Don Wagner and others - including a veterans group that has pushed for the cemetery in Orange County - say the referendum campaign spread misinformation to gather signatures.

"The campaign was built

around the Save the Veterans Cemetery (slogan), but the cemetery was never in danger," Wagner said. "I'm convinced that if the full story and truth get out, the council's decision would be affirmed."

The City Council, at its Jan. 9 meeting, will decide whether to just overturn its decision or place the item on a ballot for an upcoming special or regular election.

After the state passed a bill in 2014 to build a cemetery on a piece of land Irvine owns near the Great Park, some residents expressed concerns about having a cemetery so close to their homes and schools.

A report also came out estimating the first phase of the project - including the demolition of the original site and construction of a portion of the cemetery - would cost $77.4 million because that land is contaminated. The City Council in September approved an agreement to give that 125-acre parcel to developer FivePoint in exchange for the same amount of property FivePoint owns near the freeways for the cemetery. That site, city officials say, doesn't require expensive demolition and cleanup.

The council also approved a zone change to allow development of 812,000 square feet of research and development uses at the original cemetery site. FivePoint, which has the right to develop the freeway property for such uses, requested the zone change as part of the land swap.

Those who oppose the land swap say they worry if FivePoint develops that land, Irvine residents would suffer from increased traffic and air pollution.

The referendum specifically asks to repeal the zone change of the original site, which FivePoint officials say would kill the land swap deal.

Supporters of the land swap say the referendum could delay or even jeopardize construction of any veterans cemetery in Orange County. California Department of Veterans Affairs officials couldn't provide comment on how the referendum would impact the cemetery's construction.

FivePoint Chairman and CEO Emile Haddad said his company is ready to move forward with the land swap deal if voters affirm the zone change.

He said he respects the democratic process and does not plan to fight the referendum.


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