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Appeals Court Overturns Soka University Expansion

Ruling: Decision is a victory for Sierra Club, which challenged the Buddhist school's plans to develop more of its Calabasas-area property.

July 25, 2001|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appellate court has struck down the county's approval of expansion plans for Soka University's Calabasas campus, marking a major victory for environmentalists in their long battle with the Buddhist institution, a Sierra Club lawyer said Tuesday.

The school is on 580 acres of land in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, but only about 12 acres are developed. The plan, approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1997, called for doubling the size of the campus, said Frank Angel, an attorney for the environmental group.

Arnold Kawasaki, the school's administrative vice president, said the expansion would allow the school to increase enrollment from 200 to 650 students.

Tuesday's unanimous ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal reverses an earlier trial court decision, Angel said. The opinion, written by Judge Walter Croskey, found that the environmental impact report failed to offer more environmentally-friendly alternatives to the plan and failed to adequately assess the effects of the expansion on the endangered steelhead trout, among other things.

"[The judges] found that the county Board of Supervisors and Soka have violated the California Environmental Quality Act in several major ways," Angel said Tuesday night. "For us, the reversal of the trial court's judgment is a huge victory for the public, especially the millions of Angelenos who visit the Santa Monica Mountains--who come to visit for respite from the bustle of L.A.'s urban centers."

The county may petition for a rehearing in appellate court in the next 15 days, or petition for review by the California Supreme Court, which picks and chooses which cases it hears, Angel said.

Kawasaki said he could not comment on the 49-page ruling because he had not seen it yet, but said he still believes the expansion would not harm the environment.

"None of the more than 4,000 oak trees on campus would be removed," he said. "The impact would be negligible."

Angel argued there was no need for the expansion in Calabasas, because Soka is opening a second location next month on 103 acres in Aliso Viejo.

The $220-million campus, surrounded by the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, will feature Mediterranean-style architecture and initially include a library, student center, dormitories and a recreation center. University officials say they expect to enroll 120 students for the first semester, but Kawasaki said that campus can accommodate up to 2,500 students.

Both campuses are funded by the Japan-based Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai, which claims millions of members in more than 100 countries.

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