Conservancy says Soka purchase is still on the table


A Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy official says the conservancy has received commitments for funding, but must work out the final details. The conservancy must purchase the 600-acre property by April 15.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is denying a report in The Acorn, an Agoura Hills newspaper, that Soka University is unwilling to sell its 600-acre property located in the Santa Monica Mountains.

SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston said the conservancy and the Japanese university have a written agreement for the conservancy to purchase the property for about $35 million. The reporter for The Acorn article, Michael Picarella, said he got his information from Wendy Harder at Soka University of America. Harder could not be reached for comment. Edmiston said the conservancy’s deal is with the leaders of the university in Japan.

“I don’t know where they [The Acorn] got their information,” Edmiston said. “I wish they had spoken to us first.”

Picarella said he stood by his article and recommended The Malibu Times contact Harder.

Rorie Skei, SMMC’s chief deputy director, said the conservancy’s original deal with Soka was to purchase the property by Dec. 31. That deadline has been extended to April 15 because the conservancy must still obtain the necessary funds. Skei said the conservancy has already received commitments from various state agencies and the county for funding, but some of the final details must be worked out. The city of Calabasas has also committed $850,000. Additionally, a local homeowners association is raising money.

In the fall, the conservancy was given $10 million worth of state grant money to go toward the Soka purchase. Skei said the conservancy paid Soka $100,000 last month and this month, and will continue to do that monthly through April as a nonrefundable deposit that will go toward the purchase of the property.

In 1992, the SMMC initiated a condemnation suit against Soka, which at that time had plans for a 3,500-student campus on the largely undeveloped land. But when a court ratified the conservancy’s right of eminent domain, the agency couldn’t come up with the funds to buy the property. Edmiston and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky then negotiated a deal by which Soka would be allowed to expand, but only if it agreed to a significant reduction in the size of its student body and for restrictions that would guarantee environmental protection.

At the time, the city of Malibu, along with environmental groups and other municipalities, including the city of Calabasas, argued that the campus would cause traffic tie-ups on Malibu Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway. The city also said construction would send sediment downstream to pollute Malibu Creek and lagoon.

The collapse of the eminent domain action and subsequent approval by the California Coastal Commission, which gave Soka the right to reapply for further expansion in 25 years, angered local activist groups such as Save Open Space Santa Monica Mountains. It initiated a lawsuit that challenged county and commission approvals. Malibu environmental land use attorney Frank Angel won in the Court of Appeal, and the decision effectively thwarted Soka’s options for expansion.

Earlier this year, Yaroslavsky requested that the SMMC open negotiations with Soka about purchasing the property. This eventually led to the deal that the conservancy says it now has with the Japanese university.

Reporter P.G. O’Malley contributed to this story