The Overly Ambitious University

Controversial Soka University has finally released the environmental impact report on its expansion plans. At 16 volumes, this document is not for the faint of heart. Neither are Soka's plans.

Soka says that the weighty report signals the university's commitment to proceed amid continuing uncertainty about the long-range ownership of the parcel involved and about the university's proposed parallel development in Orange County. "After four years of overtures, we are going to see the symphony through to the end," said a Soka spokesman.

But we hear a discordant note in that music. First there's the environmental impact of expanding Soka's 200-student language school in Calabasas to a liberal arts college and prep school for 3,400. From the outset, the school's ambitious plans have stuck in the craw of homeowners adjacent to the campus in rustic Calabasas. The school wants to build facilities totaling 1.4 million square feet. That construction would increase traffic, kill oak trees and threaten wildlife habitat, although Soka's report says the damage could be mitigated.

Apart from the specific impacts of the project, Soka's interest in this remote and park-like site has understandably generated opposition regionwide. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has long coveted this parcel as the headquarters for the patchwork of public parkland in the Santa Monicas. And the "underparked" Los Angeles Basin sorely needs the additional open space.

Moreover, last year Soka indicated its willingness to compromise, proposing to cap enrollment at 2,500 students if the conservancy dropped its condemnation suit to acquire the parcel. The conservancy's board quashed the deal, betting instead that the agency would prevail in that suit--it since has--and come up with the purchase money after a jury determines, later this year, what Soka's land is worth.

At the same time, Soka has announced plans to develop property in Aliso Viejo, also for 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students. That proposal has been welcomed by many in this community near Mission Viejo. Why, then, the need for the Calabasas campus as well? That question, among others, will loom large next month in public hearings on Soka's environmental impact report before the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.

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