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Conservancy's Deal With Soka May Fall Apart

November 19, 1994|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CALABASAS — A tentative deal between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Soka University to convert part of the school's campus to parkland is in danger of falling apart as opposition from local homeowners and elected officials intensifies, sources said Friday.

The conservancy board is scheduled to meet Monday night to consider settling its eminent domain lawsuit against the school, but several sources told The Times that it is unlikely the deal will be approved.

Parks officials have coveted Soka's scenic campus for decades. They consider the campus, nestled in an oak-stubbled valley, the premier spot for a visitors center to the surrounding mountain parkland. Soka and the conservancy have spent the past two years--and hundreds of thousands of dollars--fighting each other in court over the campus.

Sources blamed the likely failure of the deal on mounting criticism from the conservancy's traditional supporters--including Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson, who helped create the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who will take over Dec. 5 as the area's representative on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

In a letter to conservancy board Chairman Jerry Daniel, Yaroslavsky called the proposed deal "public policy at its worst" and characterized it as "insidious" because it would undermine standard approval processes.

In other words, the conservancy's tacit support could leave supervisors little choice but to approve some form of expansion for Soka.

Daniel declined to speculate how Yaroslavsky's letter and a similar one from Beilenson might influence the board's decision. "Your guess is as good as mine," Daniel said. "We'll see what happens Monday night."

Last week, dozens of homeowners and environmentalists excoriated the proposed settlement at a hearing before the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the arm of the conservancy trying to condemn a portion of Soka's campus for use as a visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The most crucial hearing so far in the case is scheduled for Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Under the terms of the proposed deal, which was leaked two weeks ago, the conservancy would drop its condemnation lawsuit against the school. In exchange, Soka would sell 173 acres--including the historic Gillette Mansion and most of the land the conservancy wants.

The school would also agree to scale back its expansion plans by building a campus on the eastern part of the property that would enroll a maximum of 2,500 students.

The deal would take effect only if Soka is granted permits for a smaller university by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Supporters of the deal had hoped they could announce the settlement to Judge Barnet Cooperman on Wednesday.

Instead, lawyers probably will argue over whether the conservancy followed proper procedure when it launched eminent domain proceedings late in 1992. If the judge rules that the conservancy has the right to seize Soka's campus, a jury will decide how much the university should be compensated.

Despite the risks of proceeding with trial, several critics of the settlement proposal said that they were heartened by news of its faltering support. "I'm thrilled because it means to me that the conservancy is staying the course," said Les Hardie, past president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation.

"If the judge kicks the case out of court then I would say the conservancy will leave the field with honor," Hardie said. "They may be defeated but they will have done it with honor and done it with grace."

The conservancy is trying to condemn 245 of Soka's 668 acres at the corner of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway. Soka, in turn, wants to expand its 200-student language school into a full liberal arts college of about 3,500 students.

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