By Spencer Custodio
Governor Jerry Brown indicated it could be strawberry fields forever for Orange County veterans at a Friday press conference in Irvine, where he expressed fondness for a cemetery site near the 5 and 405 freeway interchange.
The freeway land, which is sandwiched between car dealerships located off the Northbound I-5 on large fields currently growing strawberries, could be the new home to the veterans’ cemetery if the Irvine City Council accepts a land swap proposal from developer Fivepoint.
Initially in Friday’s press conference, Brown wouldn’t say which site he preferred, instead leaving that to the city council. “Let the locals pick and we’ll back them up. So there it is.”
However, later in the press conference Brown indicated a fondness for the Fivepoint-owned freeway site.
“Obviously, I like (the) strawberry patch — ‘Strawberry Fields.’ Remember that song?” Brown told reporters.
Earlier this year, Irvine City Councilwoman Christina Shea introduced the idea of a land swap, with support from the developer, essentially trading a 125-acre site in the Great Park residential tract, already endorsed by the city council and the state legislature as a veterans’ cemetery, for the freeway property.
Council members back in 2014 authorized a 125-acre parcel in the Great Park residential tract and it was later also endorsed by state legislation sponsored by then Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva (D-Fullerton).
That project seemed stalled until Irvine City Councilman Jeff Lalloway spearheaded a move to provide nearly $40 million toward final funding for the Great Park site – at the same meeting as Shea’s proposal was unveiled.
During a contentious and lengthy public hearing, veterans’ testimony seemed split between the freeway land and the Great Park site.
Yet at Friday’s press conference, virtually all veterans speaking to reporters supported the freeway site.
Officials, like Brown and Quirk Silva, say the debate has ultimately helped move the concept.
“Now that we have two (sites), it’s absolutely certain that Orange County will get the veterans’ cemetery that it deserves and the veterans deserve,” Brown said.
Brown wouldn’t say whether the state would commit nearly $40 million to the original site if the Irvine City Council chose to stick with it.
“Obviously, one always has to be careful with the spending of money. What do you get, what don’t you get. It will be looked at. But mostly the Irvine City Council has to make a decision and we can talk about it.”
Reached later for comment, Lalloway dismissed Brown’s Strawberry Fields comment and reiterated that during a private tour of both sites, Brown indicated he would support whatever deal locals struck.
“He believes in local control,” Lalloway said.
Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner said the city council should settle on a site by the end of June.
“At that point, we’re’ going to make — I’m hoping — a final decision,” Wagner said at the press conference.
Brown also reacted to questions about his sister’s ties to the developer.
Kathleen Brown, a former California Treasurer and current partner in the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm, also sits on the board of directors of developer FivePoint.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Antenore/Voice of OC