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Senate Panel OKs $4 Million for Park Acquisition

July 28, 1993|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Acting at the behest of Soka University, a Senate subcommittee stipulated Tuesday that the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area use land acquisition funds in 1994 to buy a specific property--but without providing nearly enough money to acquire the site.

The Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee threw a monkey wrench into the acquisition process by approving $4 million for the Santa Monicas for the next fiscal year and stating its intention that the funds be used solely to buy Paramount Ranch. Park advocates, who had sought a far larger sum, say they will be unable to acquire the scenic Agoura property this year because they need more than $13 million to complete the purchase.

The $4 million is the same modest sum voted by the House and far less than the urban park has received in recent years. Park allies had cited Paramount Ranch as an acquisition target.

"The problem, quite obviously, is that since it's not an adequate amount to purchase Paramount Ranch, we really should be giving the Park Service flexibility to use it for other smaller properties as they become threatened or they become available," said Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), a park proponent who had requested $20 million in funding.

The restrictive language was inserted in the spending bill in response to concerns raised by Soka University, which is fighting park officials' efforts to acquire part of its coveted property in a meadow next to Mulholland Highway for a visitors' center and park headquarters.

Soka has sought language for the past three years prohibiting any federal funds from being used for condemnation proceedings. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that buys and manages land in the mountains, has begun the condemnation process to obtain about 245 acres of the school's land. Soka, meanwhile, wants to expand its campus into a liberal arts college.

"If we had our druthers, we probably would have preferred language that was geared more specifically toward precluding condemnation," said Jeff Ourvan, Soka's director of community relations. "But that (restriction) sounds pretty good to me. With an allocation of $4 million anyway, it's not going to go very far in acquiring Soka's land."

Conservancy officials say they already have the $19 million they need to buy Soka's 245 acres--making any anti-condemnation language moot. But Ourvan said that if the university loses its legal challenge to the condemnation proceedings, it will contend that the conservancy must purchase all 660 acres--which he says it does not have the funds to acquire.

"It's like cutting the heart out of the body and saying you can have the rest of the body," he said. "The rest of the body is useless without the heart."

Ourvan acknowledged that the well-connected university had lobbied Republican members of the appropriations subcommittee, including Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), the ranking GOP member.

Park advocates have resisted anti-condemnation language because they insist that it would set a precedent and remove the threat of using the right of eminent domain against unwilling sellers to acquire properties that are deemed in the public interest.

The Senate subcommittee wrote into the appropriations bill that "it is the committee's intent that these funds be limited only to acquisition of Paramount Ranch."

Faced with the Senate subcommittee action, the Santa Monicas' congressional allies may seek to remove the restriction or substitute other, smaller properties for Paramount Ranch when lawmakers from the House and Senate meet to reconcile the two versions of the spending bills.

Soka succeeded in getting the Senate Appropriations Committee to insert anti-condemnation language into its spending bill two years ago, but it was removed in the House-Senate conference committee deliberations. Last year, Sen. Harry M. Reid, a park proponent who sits on the Appropriations interior subcommittee, assured Republican colleagues that none of the 1993 money would be used for condemnation.

The $4 million, which the Senate is expected to approve, appears very likely to be close to the final sum. The Senate generally includes fewer dollars for the Santa Monicas than the House.

Still, the figure is less than a third of the $13.2 million that the recreation area received last year. It is also only 4% of the total of $95.6 million for parkland nationally--far less than the 15% or so that the Santa Monicas usually gets.

"I think we did fine," Reid said. "That was my goal. There's just no money. We were lucky to get the $4 million."

Beilenson agreed. "In many respects we were very fortunate to get $4 million," he said, noting that President Clinton had not included any money for park acquisition in California in his proposed 1994 budget. "It's a particularly difficult year."

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