The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said he will take steps to block the proposed sale of 109 acres at the Veterans Administration complex in Westwood if the agency does not reverse its decision to declare the property excess.
"I'm against excessing any VA property," said Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.) "Once it is gone it cannot be replaced."
Speaking at a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, he said the government's growing budget deficit means the Veterans Administration will not be able to buy any land in the near future.
"So it is my belief that the agency should hold on to what it has," Montgomery said.
The hearing was held to consider a bill that would prevent the Veterans Administration from going ahead with plans, announced in February, to sell the unused Westwood land and another 46 acres in the Sepulveda district in the San Fernando Valley. Another, smaller parcel in Westwood was put up for auction last month.
Local representatives testified that the proposed sale would lead to excess development and increased traffic in the already congested Westwood area. They also said Little League baseball would suffer if fields on VA land in Sepulveda were sold.
They also argued that the projected financial gains were illusory and that any sale would face legal challenges from the heirs of the pioneer families who donated the Westwood land nearly a century ago.
White House Budget Office
The decision to sell the property originated in the White House Office of Management and Budget, which sent its own assessors to Los Angeles. The office estimated the value of the total acreage at $360 million and figured that sum into the Veterans Administration budget as revenue.
Despite protests from the local VA officials, the proposed sale was approved by a temporary VA administrator in Washington and forwarded to Congress, which has until August to pass legislation blocking the move. If Congress fails to act, the property could be put up for sale.
But a new administrator, Thomas K. Turnage, was appointed in March. He sent a task force to Los Angeles last month to come up with new recommendations for the property in question, based on projected veterans' needs through the year 2010. That report has not yet been submitted.
"The new administrator has pledged to reevaluate this decision to be certain that an adequate assessment of the VA's future requirements is made prior to turning any land over (for sale)," said Dr. John Gronvall, deputy chief medical director of the Veterans Administration in Washington.
"Lands necessary for future VA needs will not be excessed," Gronvall said.
But he told Rep. Montgomery that by blocking the sale, the proposed legislation would "unduly limit the administrator's discretion to manage VA property efficiently and in the best interests of both the VA and the taxpayers."
Montgomery rejected this argument. "Were it not for the position I took on the proposal to excess this land, the administrator would not have had any discretion whatsoever with respect to this land," he said. "It would be gone in a minute."
Congressional sources said the VA's latest position shows that its new chief is aware of the political implications of the controversy.
Those implications were spelled out by a procession of elected officials headed by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who has sponsored similar legislation in the Senate.
Cranston, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the estimated savings of $360 million would be "a phony budget reduction" in fiscal year 1987.
"Even if the government's title to the property were free and clear, which it decidedly is not . . . experience indicates that it would take at least two to three years for the government to consummate a sale of the property," he said.
He said he expects that the latest Veterans Administration review to demonstrate "without question" that the sale should not proceed.
Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the Westwood site, said the sale of the vacant land, which forms a buffer around the VA's psychiatric hospital, would lead to problems with residents.
"The proposed sale would dramatically alter the area and can only lead to anger and frustration and accusations of total irresponsibility," he said. "There is far too little open space left in West Los Angeles for this acreage to be sacrificed in the name of Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction."
Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) said the Veterans Administration will need the unused land to expand its facilities as World War II veterans grow older and need more medical care. Also, he said, the UCLA Medical Center is considering joint projects with the VA that would be built at the Westwood complex.
"Selling these parcels now will severely limit tomorrow's options for growth," he said.