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Judge Sets Stage for Battle Over Soka Campus Site : Court: School's last condemnation challenges are thrown out. State, university present cases next month.


After nearly two years of preliminary skirmishes, a judge this week cleared the way for Soka University and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to face off in a key fight over the school's scenic Calabasas campus.

The two sides meet Nov. 23 in Los Angeles Superior Court to argue whether the conservancy has the right to condemn a part of Soka's campus at Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road.

"The hearing in November is the prize fight," Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvan said Friday.

Conservancy staff counsel Liz Cheadle agreed, saying, "This is big, big."

If a judge determines that the conservancy--a state agency that acquires parkland--has the right to take 245 acres of Soka's property, the case will then go to a jury to decide how much the school should be paid for the land.

November's hearing is a critical point in the eminent domain case, coming two years after the conservancy initially began condemnation proceedings in late 1992. The delay resulted from a series of legal challenges that have cost both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In a ruling released Friday, Judge Robert H. O'Brien threw out the last of several challenges filed by Soka in its effort to fight the conservancy's condemnation. In its latest challenge, the school argued that the conservancy should have conducted an environmental analysis of the condemnation.

The school argued such a review was necessary because, it claimed, the conservancy intends to sell the property to the National Park Service to use as a visitors' center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

But O'Brien said no review was required because the conservancy intends to essentially preserve the site, which includes the historic estate built by shaving razor magnate King Gillette.

Soka's Ourvan said the school will appeal O'Brien's ruling.

When Soka and conservancy lawyers finally do present their cases before Judge Barnet Cooperman, their arguments will sound familiar. Soka lawyers will argue, as they did in 1992 before a different judge, that the conservancy violated state law when it began condemnation proceedings.

The condemnation is being pursued by an arm of the conservancy called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. Because the authority has a joint powers agreement with two Ventura County parks agencies, it received permission from that county's Board of Supervisors to begin the condemnation--even though Soka is entirely within Los Angeles County.

Soka lawyers argue that the approval is invalid, and that permission should have come from the state Board of Public Works, which signs off on condemnation attempts by state agencies such as the conservancy.

A Ventura County judge agreed with Soka in 1992, but she was overturned by the state Court of Appeal, which ruled that the school should raise its objections during the hearing scheduled for Nov. 23.

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