Despite heavy opposition, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors cleared the way Tuesday for state park officials to condemn 244 acres owned by Soka University in the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas.
The board's unanimous action gives authority to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to condemn the school's campus for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that buys land for state and federal parks.
The action came during a packed hearing attended by at least 300 people. Nearly 70 people spoke on the issue, with at least half supporting the university's refusal to sell the site.
Barbara Lunn of Westlake Village accused the conservancy of being "land grabbers" and using "strong-armed, money-grabbing, cowboy tactics" to acquire the land.
"This is not what the original conservancy was," Lunn said before a standing-room-only audience.
The authority sought approval from the supervisors to condemn the Los Angeles County property because the conservancy is part of a joint-powers agency that includes two Ventura County park districts. On matters of eminent domain, the Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction over the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the conservancy's policy-setting arm.
Unless Soka accepts a final offer, condemnation proceedings probably will begin before the end of the year, said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy.
The conservancy has tried for more than six years to buy the school's main campus at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway for a Santa Monica Mountains park headquarters. Interest in acquiring the site peaked recently when the Tokyo-based university applied for a permit to expand from a language program for about 175 students into a high school and four-year liberal arts college for 3,400 students.
The authority has offered the university $18.7 million for the property, said Hodge Dolle, the school's attorney. The school did not respond to the offer, insisting it wants to proceed with its expansion plans.
Dolle, disappointed by the supervisors' vote, said after the hearing that the authority's appeal to the board was a "back-door" approach, and that approval should have been sought from the state Board of Public Works.
In giving condemnation powers to the authority, several of the supervisors said they were not voting for or against condemnation, but merely clearing the way for another agency to make that decision.
However, Supervisor Maria VanderKolk urged the board to let the authority use eminent domain to acquire the site, which she described as a spectacular property at the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
"It's the best use of a beautiful piece of property," she said. VanderKolk is a member of the conservancy board.
Many other people at the hearing agreed with her, contending the rural setting is the wrong place to greatly expand the college.
"The university could just as well be built somewhere else," said Linda Palmer, who represented the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council.
Mary Wiesbrock, representing Save Open Space, an environmentalist group, said condemnation is commonly used for acquiring park land, and that acquisition of the university's property is "critical to the integrity of the Santa Monica Mountains."
Dolle said Soka University has offered state park officials a $20-million deal in lieu of condemnation that the conservancy has rejected. As part of the offer, the school would donate 71 acres on its campus for a new national park headquarters which it would pay for, as well as building and renovating park ranger quarters. Also, about 80% of its 580 acres would be preserved as open space for public use.
Several supporters of the school said the offer should be accepted.
"Why the park service is not accepting it is beyond me," said Kevin Nunn of Camarillo.
"I remain mystified and, frankly, angered as a taxpayer, by the dogmatic, irrational desire of the conservancy to waste our tax money to buy property, most of which is available to the taxpayers for nothing," said George Bishop of Thousand Oaks, a member of Friends of Soka, which claims to have about 200 supporters.
But Edmiston said the land offered would be inappropriate for a park headquarters and that the $20-million value was "grossly inflated."
He said the area would become as crowded and overused as Yosemite National Park if the school carries out its planned expansion and if park headquarters were constructed as an appendage to the campus.
Times staff writer Amy Pyle contributed to this story.
Under state condemnation laws, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority now must make a second formal offer to buy the land from Soka University, an offer that will be made in a few days, according to those involved.
At least 15 days after that offer is made, the authority must hold another public hearing. If Soka does not accept the offer by the time of the hearing, the authority can go to court to file an eminent domain action in an attempt to force the school to sell.
Soka attorneys already have said that once they are sued, they will file a counterclaim, maintaining, among other things, that a forced sale of 244 acres would take the heart out of the nearly 600 acres owned by Soka. They plan to seek damages for the loss of value of those surrounding acres.
Ultimately, both sides agree, the land will be caught up in lengthy negotiations and court actions, which could take several years to resolve. Although the authority's original offer for the property was $18.7 million, the final price could well be higher and will likely be determined in a courtroom.