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Compromise Offered on Soka Land a Bad Deal : The proposed settlement on Gillette Ranch would not make for a good park. Nor would it resolve the university's desire to develop in this rural setting.

November 20, 1994|DAVE BROWN | Dave Brown is conservation chairman of the Santa Monica Mountains Task Force of the Sierra Club and a member of the citizens advisory committee of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Monday night the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will decide whether to move forward with its plans to purchase the Soka-owned Gillette Ranch, a scenic, unspoiled rural valley in the heart of the mountains, or accept a compromise that is considerably less than half a loaf.

The proposed settlement would not create a good park, nor would it resolve the serious problems created by Soka's determination to build a major urban facility in this unspoiled natural setting.

The settlement would require the conservancy to drop its attempt to acquire the Gillette Ranch through eminent domain, which Soka opposes in court. Soka would then apply to build a somewhat scaled-down institution of 2,500 students, as opposed to the 3,400 its present proposal would allow.

If--and only if--the new proposal were approved by Los Angeles County, would Soka sell the conservancy 173 acres of Gillette Ranch at market value. By fact or by implication, this would align the conservancy with Soka when county supervisors considered the plan amendment and zone changes necessary to make Soka's proposal a reality. The conservancy should not be clearing the way for a development that would spoil a rural valley in the heart of the beautiful mountains it was established to preserve.

The present Soka proposal would construct 1,810,000 square feet of building and parking structure floor space--an area 70% larger than Topanga Plaza! The 2,500-student "compromise" would involve about 1,330,000 square feet of building space--"only" 25% larger than the big shopping mall.

The park value of the Gillette Ranch has been recognized for more than two decades. Its oak-ringed meadows and secluded setting backed by rugged peaks, coupled with its easy access from the Ventura Freeway, make it ideal for the main visitor center and staging area for the Santa Monica Mountains park system. Buildings from an old seminary can easily be converted to park uses.

In June, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the Santa Monica Mountains to view the Soka property. He left no doubt about his feelings.

"The park should really include these parcels of land which lie right at the crossroads of their ecosystem and transportation system," he said. "They're right at the heart of the park system."

Two weeks ago, Rep. Anthony Beilenson, author of the legislation that established the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, wrote to the conservancy opposing the settlement.

"Allowing Soka to build such a campus . . . would do more damage to our efforts to complete the National Recreation area than anything else I can imagine," he wrote. "The natural resources and beauty of that area would be ruined by such intensive use of that site."

Here is why the settlement would not create a very good park:

* It includes less than half the level, usable land on the 248-acre Gillette Ranch.

* It includes less than one-third of the oak woodlands that Soka owns.

* It does not include all the buildings.

* A busy urban complex would sit next to the park's visitor center and main public areas, destroying the valley's natural ambience.

Gillette Ranch and vicinity are presently designated for low-intensity rural uses in the county's local coastal plan. The development envisioned by the settlement violates that plan and would harm the surrounding area. Note:

* The site is served by two-lane rural roads that cannot be widened except at staggering cost, especially through Malibu Canyon.

* The project would generate pressure to build homes and businesses in surrounding natural lands to support the university.

* Malibu Canyon/Las Virgenes Road--the main road serving the site--is already 20% overloaded. Soka would add thousands of daily trips by students, employees and service vehicles.

* Some commuters who use the road as a shortcut across the mountains inevitably would be forced onto the Ventura and San Diego freeways, which are already crowded during peak hours.

* Malibu Creek, which drains the Soka site, supports the southernmost steelhead run in the United States. These fish are especially sensitive to the street oils, fertilizers and pesticides that the Soka campus would produce in abundance.

Over the past 15 years several attempts have been made to purchase the King Gillette property and other parcels now owned by Soka. In every case acquisition has been blocked by a failure to act decisively or by the intervention of unfriendly politicians.

Public support for acquisition has grown with time, but every time government has balked at finishing the job, the price has gone up. What could have been acquired for the $6 million appropriated by the Legislature in 1979 will now cost $20 million or more.

The conservancy undeniably faces uncertainties and risks in continuing to move forward with its legal proceedings to acquire the property, but those risks pale in comparison to the risk of losing this magnificent property.

As Secretary Babbitt said, "We can't move this ecosystem around. Sites for education and for a university . . . are available in lots of places."

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