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Conservancy Effort to Acquire Campus Suffers Setback


SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS — The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's campaign to take over Soka University's scenic mountain campus suffered another setback this week when a judge delayed condemnation hearings until an appeals court rules on procedural questions.

Monday's ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Barnet Cooperman could add more than a year to efforts to condemn Soka's land at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway. Lawyers for the conservancy, a state agency that acquires parkland, fear Soka lobbyists will use the extra time to pressure state legislators to halt the seizure altogether.

"We are not happy about the stay," attorney Robert McMurry said. "Soka has demonstrated that it is willing to put infinite dollars into the legislative and judicial processes to stop us. . . . I think they want to hold us off long enough to change the laws. It's a good strategy."

Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvanpraised Cooperman's ruling, saying it "probably assures that we'll keep our campus. We are feeling that our home is our home again." Soka is a private Japanese language school operated by a Tokyo-based university.

Soka's property in a meadow south of Calabasas has long been coveted by state and federal parks agencies as the site for a visitors center. School officials want to expand the campus into a liberal arts college and last year refused the conservancy's $19.7-million offer for 244 acres of the campus.

Cooperman essentially refused to proceed with condemnation hearings until the state appeals court determines whether conservancy officials followed proper procedure when they initiated the seizure action against Soka last year.

The appeals court will weigh a December ruling by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Barbara A. Lane that the conservancy erred because it did not obtain approval from the state Board of Public Works. That ruling effectively undermined the park agency's authority to condemn Soka's land and conservancy lawyers promptly appealed it.

If the appeals court upholds Lane's ruling, the conservancy could be forced to begin anew. But by that time, the cost of Soka's land would probably be prohibitive because a state law that went into effect this year would add about $10 million to the price.

By delaying the hearings, Cooperman effectively froze the situation. He ruled that if and when the condemnation hearings proceed, Soka's property will be appraised at its December, 1992, value, regardless of its actual value at the time.

He also ruled that the delay will remain in effect only as long as Soka does not increase the size of its student body.

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