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CONSERVANCY BOARD ENDORSES SOKA SETTLEMENT.

Byline: Marni McEntee Daily News Staff Writer

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's board unanimously endorsed Monday night a proposal to settle its condemnation lawsuit against Soka University.

Approval of the proposal by the conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority could lead to the end of a six-year battle over the scenic Soka property at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway.

Conservancy and MRCA board members emerged at midnight after an hourlong closed session to announce their decision, despite criticism from a number of homeowners and environmentalists during a public hearing earlier in the evening.

The critics said the deal would undermine efforts to preserve a key piece of parkland in the Los Angeles area.

Several of the critics demanded that the agency undergo an independent audit to determine what became of funds that had been set aside to complete the Soka eminent domain action.

The conservancy officials said in the past they had set aside the approximately $19.7 million assessed value of the land, but they have conceded recently that the funds are not available to continue the condemnation action.

"We demand to know how that $19.7 million slipped through the . . . fingers of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy," said Margot Feuer, a member of a citizens group called Save Open Space. "We want hard data to reveal the truth," Feuer said.

Responding to the criticism earlier in the meeting, Executive Director Joseph Edmiston said the conservancy would welcome an audit.

"That audit is going to show the kind of estimable work that this agency is famous for throughout the country," Edmiston said.

In an effort to satisfy critics, Edmistonalso released Monday night previously confidential figures detailing federal funding for a number of conservancy land acquisitions.

Some in the audience at the Temescal Canyon Conference and Retreat Center in Pacific Palisades said they supported the settlement proposal reluctantly.

"We don't think it's the best moment for the Santa Monica Mountains. We just think it's the lesser of two evils," said Ken Wikle, president of the Cold Creek Community Council. "It's very clear - if the money is not there, the pursuit of a condemnation action is legal suicide."

Before the vote, Edmiston urged the parks agency board to approve the settlement proposal, calling the proposal the best method to preserve open space on the property.

The board of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a joint-powers agency with the conservancy, also voted unanimously to endorse the settlement proposal.

The conservancy's advisory committee, a citizens panel that makes recommendations to the conservancy, voted unanimously Monday night, with two abstentions to support the proposed settlement.

Details of the final settlement agreement still have to be worked out between the conservancy and Soka.

The land, which includes the former ranch buildings of razor magnate King Gillette, once was coveted by parks agencies as the site of a National Park Service visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Edmiston said the deal would protect critical wildlife corridors, the historic Gillette Ranch buildings and open space for public access.

The conservancy board met into the night Monday to discuss the proposal, which would limit the 200-student university to a maximum of 650 students, including 150 commuters.

The proposal also sets aside 375 acres of open space and calls for 35 acres of land to be deeded as a conservation easement. It guarantees public access to the open space land in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Soka officials have said they would not discuss the proposal until the park agency boards approved it.

The proposal calls for the MRCA, a joint-powers agency with the conservancy, to drop the condemnation lawsuit it filed against the university in 1992 to force Soka to sell 245 of its 660 acres and dedicate the land to public use.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 26, 1996
Words:638
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