A regional park agency, faced with a New Year's Eve deadline that would complicate a campaign to take possession of part of the Soka University campus near Calabasas, met Tuesday night to decide whether to condemn the land.
Dozens of speakers on both sides voiced their opinions at a meeting of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority at the Las Virgenes Unified School District headquarters in Calabasas.
The meeting on the increasingly emotional issue frequently became heated, with Chairman Michael Berger struggling to maintain control.
Some speakers voiced worries over Soka's plans to expand the school. "We do not need the city moving into the Santa Monica mountains," protested Dale Landreth, who said he lives next to the campus.
Others lashed out at the proposal to condemn the property, calling it a land grab and suggesting that the National Park Service, which would ultimately own the land if the condemnation succeeds, may not have the money to maintain it properly.
Ronald Vinci of Thousand Oaks criticized what he called the park agencies' "relentless pursuit of acquiring more and more property instead of . . . maintaining what we already have."
"This is a mad push to grab more property," he said.
The arguments continued late into the evening. Even if the authority voted to condemn the land Tuesday night, it will not be able to file the court action needed to begin condemnation proceedings until after next Tuesday, when a Ventura County Superior Court judge is to rule on a related legal issue.
Soka, which has resisted efforts by state and federal parks officials for six years to take over the heart of its campus, won a round last week when Ventura County Superior Court Judge Barbara A. Lane blocked the initiation of condemnation proceedings until after the hearing.
But the judge rejected a request by Soka's attorneys to prevent the conservation authority from scheduling Tuesday night's meeting to formally decide whether to condemn the land.
The authority had to take steps to begin condemnation proceedings in order to be able to move immediately if it wins a favorable ruling from the judge next week.
On Jan. 1, a new state law takes effect regarding condemnation of land owned by nonprofit institutions. If the authority fails to begin the condemnation proceeding before then, the new law could add $10 million to its expenses by requiring that Soka be reimbursed for improvements and relocation expenses.
The state and federal park agencies have been battling the Tokyo-based school for a 244-acre meadow, which the agencies want as a headquarters site for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The school, in turn, is fighting for local government permits to expand its small language school there into a full-blown college and high school for 3,400 students.
The authority, a joint powers agency that includes the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and two Ventura County recreation districts, had previously received approval from Ventura County supervisors to seize the land through the power of eminent domain.
Soka's attorneys are seeking to have the Ventura County vote overturned on the grounds that Ventura County supervisors did not have jurisdiction because the conservancy is a state agency--which they maintain must receive condemnation approval from the state--and because the campus is in Los Angeles County.
That larger issue will be the topic of the hearing Dec. 29. If Lane then decides to void the Ventura County supervisors' action, the conservancy will lose its last-minute bid to begin condemnation proceedings before the end of December.
Last month, the authority offered Soka $19.7 million on behalf of the conservancy. Although the sum was reportedly based on a recent appraisal, the school maintains that the property is worth far more and has rejected the offer.