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Soka University : FIGHT BREWS OVER LAND IN THE SANTA MONICAS

Despite its pastoral setting, Soka University’s scenic campus in the Santa Monica Mountains is the epicenter of a bitter fight between the Japanese-based school and environmentalists over the future of the land.

Easily accessible from the Ventura Freeway, the flat meadow with construction possibilities has long been coveted by public parks officials who want to use the land as a visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Soka, however, already owns the property and plans to expand its language school into a liberal arts college. Soka has offered to share the site with parks officials, but has refused to sell outright.

The result: Nasty battles between the school and environmentalists are being played out in the courts, the state Legislature, and in the media at a cost to both sides of hundreds of thousands of dollars. They will face off again in court this week.

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SOKA SITE HISTORY

Soka owns about 660 acres in a small valley near Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway, across the street from Malibu Creek State Park. Since 1837, when it was included in the Rancho Las Virgenes land grant, the main portion of the property went through a series of owners until Soka bought it in 1986.

* 1925-34: King Gillette, inventor of the safety razor, buys the property and hires architect Wallace Neff to design the compound of buildings still used today. Soka’s opponents still call the property the King Gillette Ranch.

* 1935-52: Clarence Brown, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive, owns the land.

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* 1952-78: The Claretian Theological Seminary uses the property to train priests and leases site to Thomas Aquinas College.

* 1978-86: The Church Universal and Triumphant owns the property.

* Since 1980: The National Park Service has wanted to acquire the property, but hasn’t had enough money. Late last year, Soka refused a $19.7-million offer from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for part of its land.

THE PLAYERS

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* Soka University of America is a sister school of a Japanese college and offers language instruction to about 200 Japanese and American students. University administrators say the school is not run by the Soka Gakkai religious organization, but does receive funding from the Japanese branch of the group.

* Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is a state agency that acquires public parkland. Since it was created by the Legislature in 1979, the conservancy has acquired more than 20,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains at an average cost of $5,000 per acre.

THE PROPOSALS

Soka wants to expand its educational programs to become a liberal arts college for 3,400 students. They would construct 1.43 million square feet of new buildings. The project would consume 89 acres, requiring 100,000 cubic yards of grading. The remaining land would be preserved as open space. Also, Soka has offered to share its site with the National Park Service.

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Parks officials, however, say Soka’s plan is incompatible with the surroundings. They want all of the land to be used as a visitors center with campgrounds and educational facilities.

LEGAL BATTLE BREWING

In late 1992, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy launched eminent domain proceedings against Soka in an attempt to condemn 245 acres in the heart of the school. Soka immediately sued to block the attempt, claiming the conservancy did not follow proper procedure. A judge agreed and the conservancy appealed. That appeal is pending--a hearing on the matter is scheduled Thursday--and the condemnation proceedings are on hold until the issue is decided.

OPPOSING VIEWS

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“Soka University is willing to be very flexible and generous, but it will never surrender all of its property. The conservancy wants all or nothing and they may very well end up with nothing.”

Jeff Ourvan, spokesman for Soka University

“The King Gillette Ranch is the center of the Santa Monica Mountains in precisely the same way that the valley floor is the center of Yosemite. Just as we can’t imagine a regional shopping mall in the middle of Yosemite Valley, we should not tolerate a regional college campus in the center of the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Les Hardie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation

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Sources: Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, Soka University; Researched and written by Aaron Curtiss / Los Angeles Times


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