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A Buddhist retreat on the Sonoma Coast will be allowed to expand its bitterly contested printing operation after the Board of Supervisors, following a 6 1/2-hour hearing in a packed chamber, denied an appeal challenging its use permit.

The Ratna Ling Retreat Center has run a printing press — staffed by retreat attendees — to create Buddhist texts since 2005. The printing takes place in a plant half the size of a football field above Salt Point State Park, and is allowed only because it is considered a religious practice ancillary to the retreat.

The books are distributed free to Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas, meant to replace those the Chinese burned during the Cultural Revolution.

"Making sacred texts is the equivalent of prayer," said Morgan Wells of Berkeley, a regular visitor to the retreat, sounding the theme that most supporters did on Tuesday.

But neighbors who have fought the printing operation contend it is an industrial activity inappropriate to the county's strikingly beautiful northwest hills and violates the county's general plan. The plant runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It has at times printed 300,000 books a year, triple what its permit allowed.

"The so-called ancillary printing plant is a scar on the green, forested coast," said Carol Vellutini.

Opponents charged that the retreat has for years pushed and broken the boundaries of its use permit. If the board denied the appeal, they said, it would set a precedent.

"Once you make an exception, the doors open, said Susan Zerwick, who lives about 10 miles from the retreat center.

Former Supervisor Mike Reilly, who spoke during public comment, said that county departments had done their due diligence and proceeded correctly.

"It's already been adjudicated and determined to be an accessory use," Reilly said.

And, ultimately, three supervisors on Tuesday said Ratna Ling's supporters were correct: that the printing operation that the retreat sought to expand is closely linked to the retreat's spiritual purpose.

"They're totally interlocked, and I'm not going to question the religious practices here," said board Chairman David Rabbitt.

The board, on a 3-2 vote, denied the appeal by Coastal Hills Rural Preservation of a county board of zoning adjustments decision in 2012. That decision allowed Ratna Ling to build a new, five-bedroom guesthouse and to increase the worker occupancy of its 21,000-square-foot printing plant.

The zoning board also replaced the 100,000-a-year limit on text production with a limit on truck traffic to the 112-acre site. And it allowed four temporary storage structures — totaling 40,560 square feet — to be made permanent.

Ratna Ling's expansion, with any modifications, is scheduled to come back for a final vote on the supervisors' consent calendar June 10.

Opponents had the strong support of Supervisor Shirlee Zane who, with Supervisor Susan Gorin, voted to uphold the appeal

"Defining what is sacred for someone is always the greatest temptation of religion, and perhaps its greatest offense," Zane said.

"And I'll tell you what is sacred for me, and that is the integrity of the land," she said. "This is not about religious use or freedom. It's about land use."

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th District includes Ratna Ling, staked out the opposite position.

Responding to opponents' calls that the printing plant should have been — and still should be — required to undergo an environmental impact report, he said, "The scope of this project does not meet that standard."

"I do believe this printing press has played a crucial role in keeping a 1,400-year-old tradition that has nearly been extinguished, alive," he added.

Carrillo said opponents had raised "valid" concerns, "but those have been addressed."

Carrillo was joined in the board majority by Rabbitt and Supervisor Mike McGuire.

The board directed staff to work with Ratna Ling to make some minor modifications to the use permit before it would formally approve it.

Those included: working out a schedule for the trucks that would limit their impact on the neighboring residents and roads; possibly reducing the press hours; and altering the maximum capacity of the printing plant to 60 people for 10months a year and 80 during July and August.

Opponents said they were going to discuss what to do next, and that legal action, while possible, would depend on its cost.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.