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Panel OKs Bill to Study Norwalk Hospital Land

May 12, 1985|MARK GLADSTONE | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A bill that would permit the sale of 18 acres of the Metropolitan State Hospital grounds in Norwalk has been watered down by a Senate committee so that the state would only study whether there is surplus land at the institution.

Meanwhile, at least one legislator has suggested the property might be better used as a center for the homeless.

Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress), who introduced the original measure for the City of Norwalk, had sought to have the state declare the land surplus and placed on the market for sale, possibly for industry.

However, in the face of opposition from the state Department of Mental Health and mental health groups, Carpenter was forced to scale back his proposal.

The revised measure--which directs the legislative analyst's office to study whether there is surplus property at the 160-acre complex--was approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday on an 8-to-0 vote and sent to the Appropriations Committee.

Hopes for Compromise

Carpenter said he still hopes, though, that he can negotiate a compromise with the Deukmejian Administration that would lead to the sale of some of the land.

Darren Chesin, Carpenter's administrative assistant, said he was surprised by the mental health department's opposition because at a meeting in February "a representative of the governor led us to believe that (the sale) would probably be OK."

"And since we didn't hear from anybody in the Administration until two days before the hearing we assumed it was all right with them," Chesin added.

Regardless of Carpenter's plan, other legislators may have their own plans for the land.

During the hearing, Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) suggested that the state might explore using the land or buildings on it to house the homeless. He said he might inspect the grounds with that idea in mind.

The way the issue was handled touched off an angry reaction from Norwalk Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez, who said the city had been led to believe that the Administration would go along with the sale of 18 acres.

'Playing Games'

Rodriguez estimated that the proceeds from the sale of the 18 acres would add about $5.8 million to the state treasury. At the same time, he argued, the city could put the land on the tax rolls by attracting light industry that would employ up to 700 persons.

"I'm awfully disappointed in the governor's office. Between it and the Department of Mental Health, I think they're playing games with the people at the hospital and in the community," Rodriguez said after the hearing.

But Dean Owen, a spokesman for the department, said that to the best of his knowledge "we've never made any agreement to sell any property at Metropolitan Hospital. . . . The mayor of Norwalk was wrong."

Controversy surrounding land sales at Metropolitan is not new.

At the heart of the issue is whether the state should keep valuable hospital grounds, use the property for other state purposes or make it available to private industry.

The 70-year-old hospital is the state's major center for treating seriously ill mental patients in Southern California. As the emphasis of state mental health policies has changed from institutionalization to outpatient programs, the hospital's average daily population has dwindled from 5,000 to about 1,000 in recent years.

Gradually Sold

The hospital grounds covered about 400 acres in the 1950s, but much of that has been gradually sold. Norwalk City Hall, IBM and Bechtel Corp. sit on land that once belonged to the hospital.

City officials insist that the 18 acres, which include a baseball diamond, tennis court and some staff housing, can also be sold because they are not needed for the care of the hospital's patients.

Even if the sale went through, Rodriguez told the committee "there are over 64 acres of open space that will remain throughout the hospital grounds."

But James Walker, chairman of the hospital's advisory board, disagreed, saying the only other open space is "between buildings."

The 18 acres, on the eastern edge of the hospital along Bloomfield Road just south of Lakeland Road, was part of a larger 50-acre parcel that the city unsuccessfully sought to have declared surplus in 1983 in a bill by then-Assemblyman Bruce Young (D-Cerritos). That measure passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate Health Committee in the face of opposition from mental health groups.

In 1983 the department didn't take a position on the bill. But this year, Jaime Guzman, legislative liaison director for the Department of Mental Health, told the committee, "We strongly feel that the land is not surplus land."

Guzman said that the 18 acres are used for recreational programs for patients and provide a "buffer zone" between the hospital and the city. He also cautioned the committee that the loss of the recreational area could threaten the hospital's accreditation.

Step Toward Elimination

Walker, of the hospital advisory board, said he views the proposal as a step toward eliminating the hospital. "Today 18 (acres), tomorrow 35, the next day 50," he said in an interview.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez told the committee his goal was to boost the city's economy "without compromising the care, the quality or the basic integrity of mental care programs at Metropolitan State Hospital."

In a related development, an Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee rejected a proposal to phase out Stockton State Hospital and eventually sell the land.

Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan (D-Fresno) directed state health officials to determine if surplus land at all state hospitals could be turned into condominiums or apartments to give mental patients a more homelike atmosphere.

Bronzan said that mental health groups "know this land represents a tremendous resource that can't be replaced." He has asked that state officials explore "creative alternatives" to selling hospital land.

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