"It has to remain for veterans only," declared Palmer, 86, of Panorama City, a former Navy Air Corps instructor who now uses a VA-supplied wheelchair.
"Don't be deceived: Anything to do with the public, we will lose. We've been losing since we got back, and it's time it stopped."
Palmer was among dozens of veterans and community activists who spoke out Friday about a proposed variance in city zoning that would permit a $40 million sober-living center to be built at the Sepulveda VA.
They came topped with American Legion hats and sporting constellations of service medals. And while some bore signs saying, "Veterans' Land for Veterans' Use Only," others spoke of lives salvaged by sober-living programs.
Some 200 people packed the five-hour hearing at the Van Nuys Civic Center in a public hearing before city Associate Zoning Administrator Linn Wyatt.
Wyatt, who is accepting written testimony about the project through Friday, will issue a decision sometime this year.
At issue is a 75-year lease signed in 2007 for an affordable apartment complex for chemically dependent and
disabled homeless veterans at the VA Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center.
Two former medical buildings would be converted to a 147-unit complex that would be operated by the nonprofit A Community of Friends. Its sober-living and job-placement programs would be run by the Los Angeles nonprofit New Directions.
Clients would be culled from the estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in the L.A. County area who have no place to go after at least six months of drug-and-alcohol treatment.
But in order to satisfy state and federal fair-housing laws, the sober-living facility could not limit services to veterans, but instead would give veterans "preference."
"We will certainly give preference for veterans and target our marketing for veterans," said Dora Leong Gallo, chief executive officer of A Community of Friends. "Veterans will always trump nonveterans off the waiting list."
But to create studio apartments exclusively for veterans would require special legislation that could take years to pass, she said.
And there lies the rub that has caused an outcry from veterans, veterans groups and neighborhood councils throughout the region.
They say Lester and Mary Gentry donated 160 acres - which enabled the Sepulveda VA to open in 1955 - with intent that the land be used for veterans. And they say a provision in the lease that lets land be sold to the lessee could open Sepulveda VA to commercial development and diminish other Veterans Affairs facilities across the nation.
"If this variance is approved, the veterans will not only have lost the hospital, they will have lost their land," said Loyd Ray, who co-chairs the Land Use Committee of the North Hills West Neighborhood Council.
"Once the first variance is granted, it will be easier to obtain the next, and the next, until the entire 160 acres may be converted to commercial buildings here in the midst of a single-family neighborhood."
"That is our land; that is our sacred land," added Edward Collins, a Navy veteran. "It's for no one else."
A Feb. 17 letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs, however, states that the New Directions/ACOF lease contains no language that would allow the sale of the Sepulveda VA buildings.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, who had initially opposed the project, said he made sure that the lease spelled out a preference for homeless vets.
Sherman also said it demands that the veteran clients be clean and sober and that the facility maintain adequate staff ratios and security measures.
"I will hold them to the fire as long as I've got fire," said Sherman, who did not attend the hearing. "It's up to the VA to enforce this lease."
Janine Angeles, a senior lead officer in the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire Division, said 218 crimes, from burglary to aggravated assault, were reported near the Sepulveda VA in the last six months.
"Our concern is we don't know who these people are," she said of the sober-living clients. "We're concerned property crimes may go up."
New Directions, which runs five sober-treatment facilities, countered that they've never had an incident in 15 years.
But while numerous residents expressed concerns about alcohol and drug use, increased traffic and declining property values, others accused the critics of not-in-my-backyard bias.
"It's a smoke screen for NIMBYism," said Rachel Feldstein, assistant director of New Directions. "It's not about serving veterans. And I think that is a disgrace."
Many veterans who had attended New Directions at the West Los Angeles VA and other sites said its 12-step-based programs transformed their lives.
Tanner Brewer, formerly of North Hills, was one of them.
"We need affordable housing for veterans," said Brewer, 46, a veteran and New Directions graduate who became homeless after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.
"This home will be for veterans, I guarantee you that, because New Directions only takes veterans."