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A Conservation Deal Is Slipping Away : Compromise is far preferable to loss of Soka University parcel in Santa Monica Mountains

November 21, 1994

Tonight the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is expected to turn its back on the best opportunity it will likely have to acquire a spectacular and uniquely valuable piece of property on behalf of the public it was created to serve. Those who reject this deal may do so out of lofty environmentalism or political self-interest. Either way, the result is that Southern Californians seeking a hiking trail or an undeveloped vista will lose big and possibly permanently.

The deal concerns a 173-acre parcel in Calabasas currently owned by Japan-based Soka University. The conservancy has long sought to purchase this oak-studded valley expanse and its historic buildings, including the King Gillette Mansion, as a headquarters for visitors to the surrounding mountain parkland. Soka has held on to the parcel, part of its 600-acre holdings in the area, in the hope that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors would ultimately approve its expansion plans. The university has a 200-student language school on the site but wants to build a liberal arts college of 3,500 students.

As the conservancy and the university have alternately fought and negotiated over use and ownership of the parcel, land values have climbed far beyond the reach of the conservancy's limited financial resources.

The proposed deal would require Soka to move its development to the east, away from Las Virgenes Road, and reduce its maximum enrollment to 2,500 students over 25 years. The conservancy, in turn, would drop a condemnation lawsuit seeking to acquire the land by eminent domain and buy most of the property it is trying to condemn for a price it can afford. The deal would take effect only if the Supervisors issue permits to Soka for the more limited expansion.

A hearing is scheduled on the lawsuit for Wednesday. But victory in court involves letting a jury decide what the Soka parcel is worth. If that figure is beyond the conservancy's means, which is quite possible, the agency would forfeit its right to the property and be liable for the school's legal fees. Then Soka could proceed as before on its ambitious development plans.

The proposed deal offers a far better way to go. Most vocal in their opposition are local homeowners, understandably concerned about increased traffic along mountain roads, and some idealists who view compromise as akin to capitulation. But so are, quietly and inexplicably, conservancy board members and local politicians who helped negotiate this honorable deal and should be among the most supportive. This deal is not perfect, but for the recreational public--the conservancy's one and only constituency--it would represent a big net gain.

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