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Conservancy’s Land Buy May Kill Its Soka Bid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two intertwined development battles over the future of oak-studded valleys in the Santa Monica Mountains have taken divergent paths--one that will preserve bucolic scenery in Topanga Canyon, another that could scuttle efforts to create a showcase park near Calabasas.

On one front, the seemingly endless spat over a proposed housing development and golf course in Topanga Canyon finally came to an end with the successful purchase of 662 acres at the top of the canyon for parkland.

But the sale also jeopardizes attempts by a state park agency to seize the pastoral Soka University campus near Calabasas.

The two battles, although fought on different fronts, are intimately connected financially and concern what some land-use experts say are the last two giant park-acquisition efforts in the Santa Monicas. Smaller disputes may erupt over other mountain parcels, but few are expected to match these two in value, importance or bile.

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Two weeks ago today, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy made its final $5.8-million payment on the proposed site of Canyon Oaks Estates, said Robert L. Wilson, head of the Disney family trust proposing the project. The payment was to be kept confidential, but details were learned by The Times.

“I’m very, very pleased that this now ensures the land to be safe for future generations,” said Roger Pugliese of Topanga Canyon, one of many residents who for 15 years battled the project that, at various times, called for construction of a hotel, a golf course and even a helipad in a lush canyon. “All the people of Los Angeles County can enjoy this land.”

But the payment further undermines the conservancy’s already shaky position in its three-year legal fight to condemn Soka’s scenic Calabasas campus, long coveted by parks officials as the site for a visitors center to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Even in years when it was flush with cash, the conservancy barely was able to keep on hand the $19.8 million it needed to buy Soka’s campus.

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With the failure of recent park bond measures and cutbacks by state and federal government, the conservancy’s coffers dwindled in recent months to a point where many conservancy insiders doubted it had enough to buy the property. Some even feared the Soka dispute could threaten the conservancy’s long-term solvency.

Finishing the Canyon Oaks deal--which was hammered out in March, 1994, with much fanfare--virtually assures that the conservancy will settle the fight out of court and possibly with a much weaker hand, sources told The Times.

Conservancy Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Sources close to the negotiations said that the conservancy is eager to settle the case to avoid a costly and potentially embarrassing showdown with the university in court. Two weeks ago, the conservancy appeared ready to offer Soka a settlement that would allow the the school to develop the property.

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Soka long has wanted to expand its 300-student Japanese language school into a full liberal arts college. Under the proposed settlement, Soka would be allowed to expand to about 650 students and build 570,000 square feet of classrooms and other facilities in exchange for a donation of about 400 acres for public open space.

But the proposal fell apart. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) balked at the amount of new construction Soka would be allowed.

Their support is considered vital because Yaroslavsky represents the area and Beilenson authored the legislation that created the recreation area in 1978.

The conservancy launched condemnation proceedings against Soka in December, 1992, after the school repeatedly refused to sell its campus at the corner of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway. Late in 1994, a Los Angeles County judge allowed the conservancy to force the school to sell.

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A jury still must determine the price Soka should be paid for its land. When the case was filed three years ago, the land was valued at $19.8 million. Soka officials say it is worth much more, but the conservancy has argued that sagging land prices have driven the price down.

Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvan said the school would rather settle the case in a more agreeable manner. “This has never been a blood game for us,” he said. “Every move we made has been defensive, not aggressive.”

For years, Soka wanted to build a 2,500-student university on its campus, once the estate of razor magnate King Gillette. But as the court fight wore on, it purchased land in the Orange County community of Aliso Viejo and announced plans to develop a similar-sized university there.

That project already has cleared its regulatory hurdles and allows Soka more breathing room as it decides what to do with the Calabasas site. “Time is on our side,” Ourvan said.

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The connection between the Soka site and the Topanga Canyon property became apparent late last year. Agency officials realized they might not be able to condemn the Soka property and still afford the $19.9-million price tag of the Canyon Oaks site.

The Canyon Oaks deal was a saga in itself. It entailed a 15-year fight between various developers and Topanga Canyon residents who wanted to preserve the scenic Summit Valley portion of the community. Early plans under the name Montevideo called for construction of a resort hotel, championship golf course and a helipad.

Over time, the project was scaled back to a 97-home development around a private country club. The conservancy was showered with praise when it stepped in at the eleventh hour to buy the property. But trouble began brewing a few months ago, when the conservancy delayed the final purchase payment in order to conserve its cash reserve for the Soka fight.

Some speculated that the conservancy might choose to default on the Canyon Oaks purchase in order to keep enough money on hand for Soka, which has been on the agency’s acquisition list since it was created in 1978.

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But one source said Thursday that “default was never an option” because the purchase enjoyed tremendous support from Topanga Canyon residents and from former Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman, who brokered the sale and for whom the park is named.

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Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy made its final $5.8-million payment on the proposed Canyon Oaks Estates site in Topanga Canyon, jeopardizing the fight over Soka University. The conservancy will probably settle the Soka battle out of court.

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