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Valley Perspective | SECOND OPINION

Beware of Soka University Bearing Gifts

The school compromised with the conservancy, but it may be trying to fulfill its expansion agenda another way.

November 24, 1996|DAVID BROWN | David Brown is a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Calabasas Planning Commission

The recent settlement between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Soka University generally has been well received by the media. In this settlement, the conservancy agreed to abandon its plans to acquire the Soka property and support a development almost half the size of Topanga Plaza across from the main entrance to Malibu Creek State Park in return for an agreement from Soka not to further expand this development for 25 years.

The famed wooden horse the Greeks offered the people of Troy 3,000 years ago also was well received at the time. Only later did the people of Troy discover that there was a hidden catch to this apparent generous settlement of a long, bitter struggle.

Could there also be a "wooden horse" in the Soka development proposal, which will be heard by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 5?

The controversy over the original plan of Soka--an institution with twice the floor space of Topanga Plaza--resulted from Soka's choice of so highly sensitive and inappropriate a location for such an intensely urban facility. The site is a remarkably unspoiled rural valley in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains bordered by state and federal parkland on two sides and ringed by some of the most spectacular scenery to be found adjacent to a large city anywhere in the country.

To add to the controversy, it was well known that at the time Soka outbid the National Park Service to purchase the property that this site had long been viewed by state and federal park officials and park supporters as the ideal location for the main visitor center and staging area for the Santa Monica Mountains park system. The area offered oak-rimmed meadows, close proximity to existing parks and the Backbone Trail, easy access from the Ventura Freeway and potential overnight facilities for schoolchildren. No other site was so accessible and so well-suited to serve a large number of visitors and introduce them to the Santa Monica Mountains.

In addition to its environmental sensitivity and park value, the Soka site is not well suited to urban development. It is in a small valley surrounded by mountains and accessed by narrow, two-lane mountain and canyon roads. The area has none of the urban boulevards and streets that normally provide access to large, urban institutions. The cost of creating such a road system in rugged mountain areas such as Malibu Canyon would have to be borne by the taxpayer and the project would be extremely destructive to the natural beauty of the canyon and surrounding parklands.

For all practical purposes, Malibu Canyon Road cannot be widened, yet it is already operating over its rated capacity during peak commuter hours and with beach-bound Valley residents on hot, summer weekends. Added traffic from urban development on the Soka site could bring this road to a standstill during peak hours, forcing more commuters to stay on the Ventura Freeway though the Valley to the San Diego Freeway, increasing congestion accordingly.

Because of the inadequate road access, environmental sensitivity and potential conflicts with beach and commuter traffic, the Coastal Commission and Los Angeles County designated only the 31 acres of the Soka site that contained several old seminary buildings for urban institutional uses in the Malibu Local Coastal Plan, adopted before Soka purchased the property in 1986. The remainder of the Soka property--about 560 acres--was designated for rural recreation (golf courses, private camps, rustic resorts, etc.) or rural homes.

The current Soka development plan--based on the settlement with the conservancy--would permit up to 440,000 square feet of building space and 650 students over the next 25 years. Thanks to hard bargaining by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Rep. Anthony Beilenson, the new institutional buildings would be clustered on only 30 acres around the existing seminary buildings, partially screened from Las Virgenes Road, Mulholland Highway and Malibu Creek State Park by some of the 4,000 oak trees on the property.

Even this "scaled down" development will probably price the Soka property beyond the reach of park agencies forever. Soka's proposed land donations will not fully compensate for this loss, since most of the land is hilly or rugged terrain. The oak-rimmed meadows most suited for public use will remain with Soka.

So where is the "wooden horse," you might ask.

In addition to the development permitted in the settlement with the conservancy, Soka is asking for something that is not part of that settlement--an amendment to the Malibu Local Coastal Plan that would expand the urban institutional plan designation on the property from the present 31 acres to 169 acres. The expansion is four to five times the area needed to accommodate the present development proposal, but it just happens to be about the same area that would have been covered by Soka's original, highly controversial development proposal.

Is Soka willing to scale back its immediate development plans in order to slip through a plan amendment that would entitle it to build its huge original development when the "cap" in the settlement agreement expires in 25 years? A reasonable citizen might conclude that is the case.

Soka does not need a major plan amendment to build the development permitted in the settlement agreement. The Board of Supervisors should deny the plan amendment on Dec. 5 and leave it to future generations to decide whether it is appropriate to develop a large urban institution in the heart of the Santa Monicas.

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