Descendants of two pioneer families who donated much of the land that makes up the Veterans Administration complex near Westwood hope to regain a 2.13-acre slice of the valuable real estate if the government sells it.
At stake is a bequest of two colorful figures of 19th-Century Southern California: Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker, daughter of a leading family during Mexican rule and wife of two of the richest American settlers; and U.S. Sen. John Percival Jones, a gold miner who struck it rich in silver, founded the city of Santa Monica and lived there while representing Nevada in the nation's capital for 30 years.
Interest in the Jones-de Baker legacy is more than historic, however. The deficit-plagued federal government hopes to sell the land for at least $7.5 million in an auction scheduled for March 27.
The heirs have a hired a lawyer to investigate their claim that the land should revert to them because the VA no longer needs it.
Legal Action Threatened
And Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman has threatened legal action to block the sale. He argued that the land would be better used for parking or senior citizen housing.
"We don't need another high-rise commercial building going up, adding to the congestion and adding to traffic," Edelman said.
Residents, too, are upset about the sale. They fear that the government may eventually sell off more of the verdant VA complex for hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We want it kept as is," said Harriet Miller, president of the Westwood Hills Property Owners Assn. "Otherwise every developer in the world, not just Los Angeles, will want to come in and grab what they can. This is a first foot in the door."
The controversy stems from the determination of John P. Jones and his partner, Robert S. Baker, Arcadia's second husband, to stimulate growth in the new city of Santa Monica nearly a century ago.
Hoping to create jobs and attract business, they gave thefederal government 300 acres of land, part of the original Rancho de San Vicente y Santa Monica, in 1888 to "establish,
construct and permanently maintain" a western branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.
The National Home has been part of the VA since 1930. Now, a narrow wedge of the Jones-de Baker tract, isolated by the San Diego Freeway and most recently used as a "Flyaway" parking facility for airline passengers, has been declared surplus.
"We hold free and clear title to it," said Mary Filippini, a public affairs officer for the federal government's General Services Administration.
But Ronald E. Gother, attorney for more than 150 heirs, said that the government's right to sell the land has yet to be determined, especially since the VA has said it is no longer needed.
"The original deed transferring it to the U.S. government was solely for the purpose of a home for the veterans, and the commitment of the U.S. government was to use it for that purpose, and for that purpose only," Gother said.
The heirs may act before the March 27 auction, Gother said. If they fail to win possession before then, they could wait until the sale goes through and then seek to recover the proceeds from the government, he said.
In any case, legal experts said any decision will depend on careful examination of the language of the 97-year-old deed, which grants the 300 acres to the federal government "to have and to hold . . . forever, for the purpose of said branch home."
The deed, which is on file in county archives, has no clause specifically calling for ownership to revert to the donors or their descendants if sold, or if the use changes.
Still, preliminary research indicates that some courts have gone along with donors' wishes in similar cases, Gother said.
"It (the deed) would have to be pretty specific," said Prof. Bill Coskran of Loyola Law School. "Most of the case decisions use what they call 'strict construction' against restrictions."
Although the Jones-de Baker tract is now part of the VA complex, a pair of bronze plaques adorned with eagles at the southern entrance on Sawtelle Boulevard still carry the words, "National Soldiers Home."
It was Jones who won congressional approval for establishment of the West Coast branch, part of an agency founded in 1864 to care for disabled Union veterans of the Civil War.
Although he and the Bakers accepted no money for the land, it was clear that the donation was made as an incentive to development, said Gjore Mollenhoff, a historic preservation officer at the VA's headquarters in Washington.