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Soka, Agency Reach Tentative Site Agreement : Santa Monicas: If OKd, the conservancy would acquire nearly 200 acres of school property. The university, in turn, would agree to scale back its development plans.

November 05, 1994|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CALABASAS — After two bitter years of fighting each other in court, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Soka University are sitting down to negotiate the fate of the school's scenic Calabasas campus.

Under a tentative agreement outlined Friday, the conservancy would acquire nearly 200 acres of Soka's campus at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway--land long coveted by parks agencies as a visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

At the same time, Soka would agree to scale back its plans to develop a liberal arts college on other property it owns adjacent to the historic King Gillette Ranch.

If approved, the agreement would settle the conservancy's ongoing eminent domain lawsuit against the school, potentially saving both sides millions of dollars in legal fees.

"Negotiation is always desirable to going to war," said Jerry Daniel, president of the conservancy's board. Daniel and others on both sides refused to discuss details of the proposed settlement--including exact acreage, how much the land might cost and when the transfer might occur.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss details," Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvan said. "The general parameters are the desire to save the taxpayer millions of dollars, the protection of the majority of Gillette Ranch as permanent open space and the establishment of a small university on the site."

Any deal would have to be approved not only by Soka trustees and conservancy directors, but by the board of another parks agency and finally by the judge in the current lawsuit.

The conservancy board is scheduled to consider the agreement Monday night at its meeting in Rosemead. Conservancy Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston said any agreements would be released later this month for public comment.

Already, however, word of a proposed deal has swept through the Santa Monica Mountains, where homeowners and environmentalists have long complained that Soka's plans to build a university are inappropriate for the area.

Most denounced the idea of settlement.

"This is not something where you can cut the baby in half," Calabasas Planning Commissioner Dave Brown said. "What we end up with is a tremendous amount of environmental damage."

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Les Hardie, past president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, said, "It stinks. I think it would destroy the conservancy as an institution that has any credibility whatsoever in the environmental community and among people who care about the mountains."

Other groups, including the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club and the Coalition to Preserve Las Virgenes, also condemned the proposal.

The conservancy has been trying to seize 245 of Soka's 660 acres through eminent domain. The land, which includes a mansion and grounds built by razor magnate King Gillette, is adjacent to Malibu Creek State Park and one of the few large flat areas in the mountains.

Soka, on the other hand, wants to expand its small language school of about 200 students into a full-scale liberal arts college. Since 1991, it has offered to share the site with parks agencies, which refused.

Even now, Edmiston said, the idea of sharing the property with Soka is unacceptable. "Joint use is not on the table," he said. Sources said the proposed deal requires Soka to give up entirely its claim to the Gillette Ranch portion of the property.

But Soka would be allowed to seek permission for a scaled-down development on its adjacent 400 acres to the east. Even if the conservancy continues its eminent domain action and ultimately wins, Soka still would retain that right.

Any development on the site would be considered by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Edmiston said settling with Soka would not lessen the conservancy's concern over the environmental effects of a larger university.

"This is not an endorsement," he said. "I would assume that we would have full right to comment on their project. The only thing this deals with is the legal aspect of it."

But some remained unconvinced.

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), who authored the 1978 legislation that created the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, said the proposal would ruin the area.

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"There is absolutely no way that having a large campus right in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area will benefit the park," he wrote to conservancy President Daniel on Friday. "The natural resources and the beauty of the area would be ruined by such intensive use of that site."

Conservancy officials and board members declined to discuss why they sat down to negotiate with Soka after so much time and money has been invested in the legal fight. Later this month, the conservancy and Soka were scheduled to face off in court for one of the final arguments in the case.

Soka attorney Hodge Dolle said the conservancy may be feeling the pinch of mounting legal bills. Since a parks bond measure failed last summer, the conservancy has been squeezed for cash to acquire new properties.

Dolle also said that if Edmiston loses the eminent domain case--the first ever launched by the conservancy--the defeat could undermine the conservancy's efforts to cobble together other mountain parcels for parks.

"I think the conservancy would lose a lot of credibility," Dolle said. "If he (Edmiston) is viewed as a crippled condemner, then that's like having a toothless bulldog bite you. I think that's what's at stake here."

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