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Soka Recruits Lobbyist as Battle Over Plan for New Campus Heats Up : * Development: The school alleges an 'attack' by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Hayden wants a study of university's legal status.

July 04, 1991|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The battle over Soka University in the Santa Monica Mountains escalated this week, erupting on two new fronts in the capital.

First, the Calabasas-based school reversed an earlier decision and hired the Sacramento lobbying firm of Dennis E. Carpenter to protect the school's interests in Sacramento.

Soka University spokeswoman Bernetta Reade cited what she called "a very pointed attack" launched by Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, as the reason to retain Carpenter.

Adding to Soka's woes, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) has urged a state education panel to "immediately conduct an investigation of the university's legal status and educational program."

In a letter dated June 27 to the state Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, Hayden maintained that Soka University, most of whose students come from Japan, should be subject to state oversight.

He said Soka, which offers English and American culture classes to students from Japan, has described its courses as career oriented and therefore exempt from state oversight. As a result, state education officials have granted the school an exemption from strict financial and academic requirements.

Hayden, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, maintained that Soka "may not operate outside the purview of state oversight, and that its annual declaration of exemption . . . is invalid."

Marion Miller, an official with the education council, said the agency is "looking into the matter" raised by Hayden.

Soka's Reade said she could not comment because she had not seen Hayden's letter.

The controversy over Soka University has been sparked by its plans to develop school property in Calabasas as part of a 4,400-student college. But the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy wants to acquire the property for the headquarters of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The fight has spilled into the Legislature, where it centers around legislation addressing how to determine the value of land owned by such nonprofit groups as churches and schools when public agencies want to condemn the property for their use.

The bill, by Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland), would allow some nonprofit groups to increase the value of their land to include the cost of rebuilding in the same area. Government appraisals now mirror only the value of the land and the depreciated value of existing buildings.

Conservancy officials have said the measure could add $10 million to the cost of Soka land sought by the agency.

Petris sought the change as an outgrowth of a dispute between a Seventh-day Adventist school and the city of Lynwood. The measure has cleared the Senate and is scheduled for a hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

A Petris aide said the senator has agreed to postpone until 1993 the effective date of the measure for areas of the Santa Monica Mountains that the conservancy wants to acquire.

The proposed amendment prompted Soka University to re-evaluate its position on the bill.

Shortly before the Senate action, Reade said the university would not "participate in any kind of lobbying" on the measure. But Reade said earlier this week that university officials decided to hire Carpenter upon learning about Edmiston's efforts to secure the amendments to it.

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