By Katharine Russ
At the heart of the controversy surrounding the Sepulveda VA facility is the granting of the variance by L.A. City Council so that Hospital Buildings 4 and 5 can be turned into apartments that may (or may not) house Veterans. The provisions of the lease only give “preference” to veterans and make provision for changes to the lease that could redefine potential tenants.
The North Hills West Neighborhood Council (NHWNC), whose stakeholders include the 150,000 veterans currently served by the Sepulveda VA, studied the proposed project for over four years and twice voted to deny it. Their conclusion was that Veterans, and the community, would be better served if Buildings 4 and 5, which are clean and in good condition, were refurbished and staffed as medical buildings that could house 300-350 Veterans undergoing treatment at any given time.
Case No. ZA-2008-2304(ZV)(SPR), the request for a zoning variance that would change the zoning for 7.05 acres of the 160 acre site, was heard on February 20, 2009 and attended by over two hundred people, nearly all in opposition of the approval of that variance. Without this variance the project could not be approved.
Under questioning by Assistant Zoning Administrator (AZA) Linn Wyatt, Consultant Lee Ambers stated that in a private meeting with Michael LoGrande, Chief Zoning Administrator, and Gail Goldberg, Director of City Planning, LoGrande and Goldberg had decided that Gallo could sign the application. The Application was signed by Lessee, Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of A Community of Friends, (ACOF) on 6/4/08 without Power of Attorney to act on behalf of the VA. According to the Applicant’s affidavit: “Under penalty of perjury the following declarations are made:
The undersigned is the owner, or lessee if entire site is leased, or authorized agent of the owner with power of attorney or officers of a corporation.”
A Zone Variance is, in effect, a zone change although it applies only to a portion of the property. Gordon Murley, author of PF Zoning and Member of South Valley Area Planning Commission, pointed that ACOF is not the owner, therefore, the application should not even have been accepted. Murley also told Wyatt that she could not make at least three of the five mandatory findings necessary for approval.
“The Master Plan for the Sepulveda facility does not exist. Before a project like the New Directions Sepulveda I and II is approved, a plan for the site that boldly looks to serving the veterans and their families in the future should be considered. The San Fernando Valley communities have a large stake in this rare and valuable VA property. It should not be redeveloped nor committed to permanent uses without careful overall planning,” said Lewis Brown, President North Hills West Neighborhood Council (NHWNC).
There are more than 230,000 stakeholders, Neighborhood Councils, Veterans, Civic Organizations etc., who have voiced strong opposition to the Sepulveda Veterans Hospital Project.
Councilmember Greig Smith said, "We cannot comment as this is an ongoing and open land use application with facts still coming in."
Peggy Burgess, Stakeholder-member of NHWNC Land Use Committee said, “The controversy is more than a “land use” issue. It represents a blatant disregard by the VA for veterans to which the City has become a part of. Granting the variance would severely debilitate and incapacitate the more than 150,000 veterans who rely on the Sepulveda facility for medical care and who are now forced to travel to West Los Angeles for acute care. Add to that equation the thousands of Afghanistan and Iraq soldiers who have been deployed multiple times, unlike any other war, and the end result will be a critical shortage of acute care. The buildings must be restored to a full service medical facility. The Enhanced 75 year leases will pave the way for further building on the 160-acre site as well.”
Back in September 2007, The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, gave testimony on Capitol Hill citing the Veteran’s Administration (VA) shortcomings, “Delayed decisions, confusing policies, and the perception that DOD and VA disability ratings result in inequitable outcomes have eroded the credibility of the system, thus, it is imperative that DOD and VA take prompt steps to address fundamental system weaknesses.”
In 2009, deficiencies still exist and Veterans still receive shoddy treatment, experience delays in services and see their benefits denied and eroding.
The Department of Veterans Affairs FY 2008 Asset Management Plan (AMP) states, “This lease (Buildings 4 and 5) will result in the availability of safe, affordable supportive housing for veterans, on a priority basis. In addition, VA will receive as consideration for this lease the following; cash in the form of 10% of gross revenues received from Filmmaking Activities on the Property, in-kind services in the form of professional counseling, case management and crisis management services to veteran tenants, professional/technical training services for VA employees, and temporary use of the property by VA employees for VA activities. Overall this lease will result in significant cost avoidance to the Department by reducing reliance on inpatient and domiciliary resources, and will permit more resources to be directed toward direct veteran care.”
But in 2005, a letter from Theresa Castillo, Public Affairs Specialist Asset Management- Filming and Land Use, to Ralph Tillman, Director GLA Asset Management, indicated this was not the case. “It has come to my attention that Buildings #4 and #5 on the Sepulveda campus may soon become unavailable for filming due to a contract with New Directions. Losing Buildings #4 and #5 would be severely detrimental to Asset Management’s five-year strategic plan and would dramatically decrease our department’s ability to generate revenue,” Castillo wrote. Her letter concluded with, “Buildings #4 and,#5 are vital to maintaining and expanding the revenue generated by GLA filming operations. These buildings comprise 90% of filming revenue over the previous five years and contain unutilized capacity. In the following five years, we estimate that Buildings #4 and #5 alone could generate $17,280,475.00 and $5,452,284.00 in donations. In order to continue funding medical appropriation, it is critical to maintain filming in buildings 4 and 5.”
The VA entered into leases with New Directions in December 2007 and maintains in FY2008 that the VA receives 10% of revenues from filming yet prior to 2007, the VA was receiving 90% of those revenues. The AMP cites “Recent Enhanced-Use Lease Successes” and refers to the Sepulveda facility as a success inspite of the fact that the Los Angeles City Council has yet to grant a variance for the project to be built. Further, under Chapter 5- Disposal it states, "Under section 8164, 38 USC, if the Secretary determines during the terms of the EU Lease or within 30 days of its expiration, that the leased property is no longer needed by the Department, the Secretary may initiate action to transfer all rights, title, and interest in the property to the lessee." This translates to a divestiture of property at the sole discretion of the Secretary.
So what does this mean for veterans who depend on the VA for medical care or VA benefits they are entitled to? Right now, there are more than 170,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some 40,000 have been wounded and approximately 300,000 are living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide rates are high among those in the armed forces. Estimates say that 20,000 veterans will be returning to Los Angeles in the next few years.
Marshall Jackson, a Vietnam Veteran, said, “I am a veteran of almost 16 years in the army- two tours in Vietnam, and I know a little about the VA system. I, finally, got my claim approved, and it only took 28+ years. What really burns me up is that it was approved using the same information that I presented at the very beginning, and to every Adjudicator and Administrative Law Judge in the appeals process.”
Jackson’s situation is not an isolated case. There are thousands of veterans who have been denied care or are still waiting for benefits decades later. Thousands of cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have, potentially, gone undiagnosed, according to Congressman Bob Filner, Chairman House Committee on Veterans Affairs in a national broadcast, because the VA actively encourages doctors to avoid diagnoses due to the cost. He said, “We’ve had incidents, for example, of PTSD team leaders telling their people, ‘Stop diagnosing PTSD. We can’t afford it. It costs too much. Diagnose something else.”
Transcripts from the Dr. Phil Show in December of 2008 gave commentary from Filner, who approved the leases for the Sepulveda facility. He said it’s hard to get accurate information from the VA, because the administrators lie to his committee. “In the last two years, we have increased their budget, especially in mental health, almost 40 percent, which is unprecedented. So we give them the resources. The question is, how do they use them? If they want to cover up, they can cover up.
We’ve had shredding of documents reported for claims. We’ve had backdating of things. We’ve had covering up suicide statistics, and we say, ‘Fire those people,’ but we don’t have the authority to fire them, only the executive branch does.”
Robert Rosebrock, Co-Director- We the Veterans and Director- The Veterans Revolution, lamented, “Once this “community” group gets into the Sepulveda VA, it will become as corrupt as the West LA VA that has leased 20 acres for a wealthy private community school, leased two Veterans theaters to an entertainment group for a "community cultural center" and 16 acres for a “public community park,” while Veterans healthcare services go neglected.”
Katharine Russ, North Valley Reporter. [email protected]