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Soka Makes Headway in Fighting Off Park Bids : Environment: University's lobbying efforts appear to be working. It hopes to prevent conservancy from using state funds to buy school land in Santa Monica Mountains.

September 19, 1993|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Soka University's campaign to block the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy from spending public funds to acquire school land is apparently paying dividends.

First, fearing Soka's potential opposition, organizers of a proposed $2-billion statewide parks initiative inserted a provision to restrict the ability of the conservancy to use any of the measure's proceeds to buy 425 acres of Soka property that it covets for a park headquarters in Calabasas.

And earlier this month, Soka opened a new front in its campaign to thwart the conservancy's bid to acquire the land.

Lobbyists for the school persuaded state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) to tie a similar provision to $25 million earmarked for the conservancy in a proposed park bond measure he is seeking to place on the ballot in either June or November, 1994. Thompson's bill will be considered by the Legislature in January.

Ed Matovcik, Thompson's press secretary, said the Soka lobbyists described the restriction--stuck into the measure a day before the 1993 session ended earlier this month--as non-controversial.

Esther Feldman, a conservancy official, however, labeled it "a special interest amendment for one specific purpose: To freeze the conservancy's funds . . . so we can't buy this property."

In an interview last week, she added: "Soka has tried and continued to (try to) dry up or restrict the conservancy's funding sources in any way they can. Clearly, both of these are part of that effort."

Jeff Ourvan, a Soka spokesman, acknowledged that his school is seeking to cripple the conservancy's ability to purchase the property. "We're basically trying to stop their moves to seize" the land, he said. "It's not for sale."

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Soka has been fighting efforts to acquire part of its coveted property near the intersection of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway, which the National Parks Service would like for a visitors' center and headquarters for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The conservancy, which acquires open space in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, has initiated the condemnation process to obtain the university's land. In the meantime, the school wants the land for a proposed expansion. It currently is a language school with about 200 full-time and part-time students, but wants to expand into a 3,400-student liberal arts college.

Conservancy officials have had the 245 acres appraised at $19 million--a sum that they say they have in the bank. But should a jury set the value higher or force the conservancy to purchase the entire 660-acre Soka property, the agency would be hard-pressed to find the funds, Feldman said.

The funding battle between the conservancy and Soka has ranged from Washington to Los Angeles.

Feldman said similar restrictive language was included in Proposition A, a $540-million parks assessment initiative approved in November by Los Angeles County voters. And a House subcommittee earlier this year inserted restrictive wording into a spending bill, in response to concerns by Soka.

The latest twist in the feud has its roots in conversations that began several months ago.

At that time, Ourvan said Gerald H. Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, contacted Soka to get its opinion of language in the proposed statewide parks initiative. The wording was designed to preclude funds for the conservancy being allocated to purchase condemned land.

Ourvan said he figured organizers of the initiative wanted to avoid controversy.

Meral said he called Soka "because we were afraid of them being a potential opponent" of the statewide parks measure. And he agreed to curb the capability of the conservancy to spend money it would receive should the proposal be placed on the ballot and win voter approval.

Under the initiative, the conservancy would receive about $85 million for 13 projects, including $30 million to acquire coastal canyons and $24 million for Topanga Canyon watershed property. Organizers expect that by the end of October they will turn in enough signatures on petitions to qualify for the June, 1994, ballot.

Ourvan said Soka's lobbyists, including former Assemblyman Bruce Young (D-Cerritos), approached Thompson to insert the same limitation in his pending park bond measure.

The language reads that none of the park funds "shall be used for the purpose of acquiring any improved real property used for nonprofit educational institutional purposes by the use of eminent domain." Supporters and opponents say that description applies to the Soka property.

Thompson spokesman Matovcik said the restriction "was brought to us in the closing days of the session by Bruce Young and it was portrayed as a non-controversial amendment, being the same language" as the state parks initiative.

"We didn't know the opposition that has since surfaced," he said, suggesting that Thompson might strip the language from the parks measure or insert it into another bill.

But opposition immediately surfaced.

Les Hardie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, branded Thompson's amendment as "kind of unprecedented," maintaining he could not "remember a time when a private organization . . . has had this kind of power in the Legislature."

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The conservancy's Feldman said the agency believes Thompson was "misled" about the proposal being innocuous.

She said that the conservancy had no choice about the restrictions being placed into the statewide parks initiative.

The conservancy believes it can cry foul on the Thompson bill.

"We're talking about legislators creating public policy and we don't feel we should be treated any differently in state park bond acts than any other state agency," Feldman said.

Soka's Ourvan sees it differently.

He maintained that the conservancy leadership is "running somewhat a renegade agency" because it "is attempting to seize the land without authority from the state."

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