Leaders of the controversy-plagued Church Universal and Triumphant have sold the sect's Calabasas headquarters and announced plans to move to an isolated Montana ranch by the end of the year.
The 218-acre compound was purchased Thursday for $15.5 million by Soka University of Tokyo, church officials said.
The Japanese university intends to turn the Calabasas site into an American campus, according to officials of Nichiren Shoshu Sokagakkai of America, a Buddhist group that assisted the school in the acquisition.
The university will take possession of the property, at the intersection of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway, in phases between Sept. 1 and Dec. 15, a Nichiren Shoshu spokesman said.
Church Universal officials--who planned to announce the sale during a five-day conference of members that ends Sunday at the Calabasas site--said their headquarters will be moved to Livingston, Mont., by year's end.
The sale caps an often-stormy eight-year Calabasas residency by the sect, whose estimated 10,000 members adhere to a blend of Eastern and Western "ascended master" theologies taught by church leader Elizabeth Claire Prophet, who is known to members as "Guru Ma."
After buying the property for $5.6 million in 1978, the sect clashed with Calabasas neighbors and Los Angeles County zoning officials over development of the site and annual July 4 conferences that attracted thousands of disciples to the compound.
Church Universal also drew fire from ex-devotees who labeled it a dangerous cult. One detractor, a Westlake Village man who claimed in a lawsuit that he was subjected to thought control by Prophet and others, won a $1.5-million verdict against the church three months ago.
The sect's move to Montana had been expected since 1981, when Church Universal leaders purchased ranch land owned by magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes. The sect currently owns 33,000 acres in the Livingston area, where an estimated 200 members live.
The Calabasas headquarters, dubbed "Camelot" by Prophet, includes offices in a graceful 1920s-era mansion built by razor blade baron King Gillette, as well as dormitory space built between 1952 and 1970 by the Claretian Fathers as a Roman Catholic monastery.
Environmentalists active in preservation work in the Santa Monica Mountains had lobbied for acquisition of the church property by the National Park Service for use as headquarters for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
No Offer Made
But Edward Francis, Church Universal business manager and husband of Prophet, said Thursday night that federal officials never submitted an offer for the property.
The Nichiren Shoshu spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said Soka University will initially use the Calabasas property as a language center. He said the 15-year-old university has an enrollment of about 5,000 in Japan.
Besides offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees, the university publishes quarterly business and economic journals, according to the International Handbook of Universities.