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Conservancy Reaches Tentative Accord on Soka Site : Parks: Deal would allow university to proceed with expansion, while preserving 173 acres of its Santa Monica Mountains property as open space.

November 20, 1994|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A tentative settlement between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Soka University would turn 173 acres of the school's scenic Calabasas campus into parkland, but only after Soka's expansion plans are approved and construction begins.

In addition, the conservancy would be required to drop its 2-year-old eminent domain lawsuit, which seeks to condemn 245 of Soka's 662 acres at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway.

Both sides described the agreement as a fair deal that would save public money and preserve much of the school's property as open space.

"When a parks agency is presented with the opportunity to get 70% of what it wants, including the jewel of what it wants, in this environment we would be absolutely foolish not to consider the offer," said the conservancy's executive director, Joseph T. Edmiston.

Settling with Soka could save millions of dollars to buy other parkland, he said.

Parks officials have long coveted Soka's property as a site for a visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. But Soka, which runs a language school for 200 students, wants to expand into a liberal arts college.

Under terms of the deal, Soka would move its proposed development to the east, away from Las Virgenes Road, and reduce its maximum proposed enrollment from 3,400 to 2,500 over 25 years, school spokesman Jeff Ourvan confirmed.

The conservancy, in turn, would buy most of the property it is trying to condemn--including the historic mansion built by razor magnate King Gillette. The price likely would be an average of three appraisals to be performed in the future, probably between $10 million and $30 million.

Ourvan and Edmiston estimated that the whole deal, from the title transfer to Soka erecting a new administration building, would take at least five years to complete.

The pact must still be approved by two parks agencies, Soka trustees and the judge hearing the condemnation case.

If the conservancy forsakes the deal and pursues condemnation, sources said, the ultimate price of the property could be several million dollars more than the conservancy's appraised value of $19.8 million once attorneys' fees and court costs are added.

Ourvan even said that the school probably would sue the conservancy for damages if the case goes forward, potentially adding several million dollars more to the conservancy's legal bills. But opponents of Soka's plans criticized the deal--especially the condition under which no land would change hands unless the school's expansion plans were approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

They said such a provision would require the conservancy and other environmental groups to support a destructive project to get part of the school's property.

"It's sort of like a Hobson's choice," said Les Hardie, past president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. "It puts us in an impossible position."

Calabasas Planning Commissioner Dave Brown agreed.

"It will tear the community apart, that's for sure," Brown said.

Edmiston said he understood anger over the deal because many opponents of Soka's plans consider the conservancy's condemnation efforts their best hope for stopping the school's expansion.

But, he said, a conservancy victory is in no way assured. Even if the conservancy is victorious, Soka would retain the right to apply to develop the rest of its property.

"They are no doubt angry because we did not put the silver bullet in the gun and try to fire it and hope there was some powder," Edmiston said.

The board of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, an arm of the conservancy, will meet Monday night to decide whether to sign off on the deal.

Soka and the conservancy had been scheduled to face off Nov. 23 in Los Angeles Superior Court to determine whether the conservancy has the legal right to take the school's property.

Park Deal at Soka

Part of Soka University's senic Calabasas campus would be sold to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy under a tentative agreement to settle the conservancy's 2-year-old eminent domain lawsuit to seize the school's land. Soka now operates a language school with about 200 students on the site.

Highlights of the Deal

* Conservancy would gain 173 acres at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway.

* Remaining Soka property would remain open space.

* Conservancy would get historic Gillete Mansion.

* Agreement is contingent upon conservancy dropping a condemnation lawsuit and Soka gaining permission from Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to expand.

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