‘We take care of our own’: Placerville adopts resolution to protect Veterans Memorial building

It’s where the uniform of Sgt. Sky Mote, the Marine who in 2012 sacrificed himself for his teammates in Afghanistan, is showcased. It’s the building where veterans and their families – and even their dogs – are honored for their service, and where they go to get help and assistance.

The Veterans Memorial building in Placerville means a lot to the veterans of El Dorado County and beyond, according to spokesman and veteran E. Lee Nelson. So when last December he discovered a 10-year-old plan drafted by the city of Placerville to possibly replace the memorial with a multimodal center, including a parking lot or a bus station, he took action.

Nelson contacted city officials, organized a gathering of veterans and supporters, and attended three City Council meetings to voice his concerns. The council and Mayor Mark Acuna said the city never intended to act on the plan. But during Tuesday’s meeting, they agreed to quickly adopt a resolution to protect the memorial in perpetuity and re-emphasize the city’s support for its veterans.

The memorial building property at 100 Placerville Drive was acquired by El Dorado County in 1941. For nearly 80 years, the county has “continually and exclusively operated it” to host veteran organizations or veteran functions, Nelson said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

However, in 2009 the City Council and Acuna drafted the “Placerville Drive Development and Implementation Plan” to improve traffic flow. That March, the city approved a long-term plan that could replace the memorial building with a parking lot or bus terminal.

At the time, Acuna said, there was much discussion in the community about the veterans’ relocation, and it was “with this assumption that the Vision Plan included alternate uses for the current building.” However, the six veterans organizations of El Dorado County that manage the memorial were never notified, according to Nelson. He said he learned about the plan only in December 2018.

“You got to realize that a lot of the veterans here are no different than the homeless,” said veteran and Placerville resident Charles “Bud” Sweet in an interview with The Bee. “When people come down there and they are broke, need money for gas, need a place to stay,... we take care of our own.” Sweet was incredulous when he heard the news. He said the veterans of the county would fight to keep their memorial.

In April, Nelson drafted a resolution to amend the plan, and protect the memorial and the veterans it serves. The city’s plan violated California Military and Veteran’s Code: “Section 1266(a) protects buildings that are dedicated by cities or counties for the use and benefit of veterans organizations, by prohibiting revocation of the dedication,” Nelson wrote in the resolution. “The very fact that it’s been used by veterans constitutes a dedication that the City or County ... cannot revoke,” he said in the interview.

When the city tried to take control of the Veterans Memorial building in Sonoma Valley in April 2018, veterans responded with a lawsuit. But Nelson said that’s not what the veterans in Placerville want. Their goal, he said, is to maintain positive relations with the council, while protecting veterans’ rights.

Mayor Acuna agreed. He told The Bee in a written statement on July 3 that the city never had any intention of asking the veterans to relocate. “It is very unfortunate, that over time, the intent of this planning document has caused alarm among our Veteran community,” the mayor said. “The Veterans Building will remain a landmark on Placerville Drive.”

Acuna offered to put that promise in writing last Friday, July 5, but so long as the plan remained active, Nelson said he would not stand down. He encouraged the city to quickly pass the proposed resolution.

Acuna negotiated with Nelson until Monday arguing that a resolution was not necessary. “The current community reaction is being generated from a 10 year old report,” Acuna wrote in a statement that day. He said that since the plan was approved in 2009, a new multimodal facility had been designed and is nearing completion on Forni road, south of the Veterans Memorial.

The major argued on Monday and emphasized again during Tuesday’s meeting that “there has never been and there never will be the intent to reuse that building or that site, and (we will) continue to support its use as a veterans facility in perpetuity.”

But Nelson persisted until the mayor agreed not only to add the resolution to the council’s agenda, but to endorse it and promote it himself. On Tuesday, the City Council ensured that the resolution would be the first discussion item addressed.

“I was very much blindsided about what was going on and I very much could understand from the city staff’s perspective that they could see, they could see because that’s their profession – that there were dozens of reasons why the city can... never touch the Veterans Memorial building unless the veterans have well and long abandoned it, and then only after we could purchase it from the county,” Acuna said in the meeting. “But... that’s not a veterans’ perspective, and it was clear to me that I needed to engage with the concerned parties on both sides of this issue.”

The council members said they spent three days reviewing and editing the document, assured the community that the memorial would not be replaced and unanimously agreed to adopt Nelson’s resolution – sidestepping the lengthy process usually followed in similar circumstances.

“Our mayor, very shortly after finding out about this issue, supported the resolution and brought it forward tonight,” Nelson said during the meeting. “For that I thank you, Mr. Mayor.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.