Plans to upgrade one of Sonoma County's largest Buddhist centers have drawn a serene mountaintop meditation retreat into a fight with neighbors fed up with the crumbling condition of the county's rural road network.
The Sonoma Mountain Zen Center on Sonoma Mountain Road southeast of Santa Rosa plans to build a new 4,330-square-foot meditation hall, two new residential buildings with 12 dormitory rooms and host an annual event of up to 500 people.
Zen center leaders say the project will replace existing buildings and will not significantly expand the 40-year-old place of worship.
"We're just trying to comply with the county so that we can exist how we are," said Demian Nyoze Kwong, leader of practice at the center. "We're not doubling in size. It's not an expansion. All we want to do is sit here."
But the plans, which would amend the center's 1992 use permit, have touched off a dispute with some Bennett Valley residents who say Sonoma Mountain Road, a narrow, winding, pot-holed county byway, is ill-equipped to handle the two-year construction project and events at the center that critics say will increase traffic.
"I'm against it," said Scott Fountain, a general contractor who lives off Sonoma Mountain Road. "The condition of that road is abhorrent. To think that they are going to expand the center and they aren't going to do anything to fix the road, it's going to beat the road to holy hell."
The conflict puts a different twist on land-use disputes in the county, which more often target vineyard development, open space preservation or city-centered big-box stores.
In this case, with upkeep of the county's ailing 1,382-mile road network now a major political and fiscal issue, even a long-established religious retreat with famous supporters has been drawn into a fight.
Craig Harrison, president of Save Our Sonoma Roads, which advocates for greater road spending, said that opposition to the Zen center project is fueled by discontent about road conditions. The county-maintained network has consistently been ranked among the worst in the Bay Area.
"No one wants to pick on the Zen center," said Harrison, who lives off Sonoma Mountain Road. "I'm concerned with any additional impact on roads that are turning to rubble. If the roads were in good condition, this issue would never have come up."
Vickie Brown, a Sonoma Mountain Road resident, said she would support the project if the road was fixed first.
"It's the events that are a concern for me if they aren't going to fix the road," she said. "The roads are just going to get worse. If the county says yes to improving the roads, then go ahead and approve the permit."
The dispute illustrates what could be a greater liability for land-use projects seeking approval in the unincorporated area.
In the face of flat state support, county supervisors have struggled over the past decade to maintain funding for road upkeep. This fiscal year and last, they've dipped into special reserves to bring county support back to historical levels. But the extra spending is aimed only at a fraction of the overall network and has failed to calm a political storm that began three years ago, when the county unveiled a plan that could ultimately lead to most roads returning to gravel.