A prolonged public hearing that highlighted divisions on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and in the rural community of Cazadero concluded Tuesday night with a 3-2 vote finalizing an expansion plan for a Buddhist retreat in the coastal hills.
The four-hour hearing before a crowd that spilled into a hallway focused on whether Ratna Ling Retreat Center's book storage and printing press — the latter described by critics as an "industrial" facility — posed a fire hazard in the wooded hills.
But the vote, with Board Chairman David Rabbitt and Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire voting to approve the expansion plan, did not cover the press used to print Tibetan Buddhist texts. The county signed off on the press in 2004, according to a county planning staff report.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin applauded Ratna Ling's goal of preserving sacred texts in four existing buildings on the Hauser Road property, but voted against the project, calling it a poor land use precedent in an era of prolonged drought.
The split vote was exactly the same as one held April 8, when county officials were directed to work with Ratna Ling on modifications to the plan.
A Cazadero citizens group called Coastal Hills Rural Preservation had appealed a Board of Zoning Adjustments approval of the expansion plan in 2012, putting the decision before the supervisors.
Carrillo, whose district covers Cazadero, said Ratna Ling had "taken each and every complaint seriously." The center would be welcome and valued "anywhere else in the world," he said.
Zane contended that the text storage facilities, totaling nearly 40,000 square feet, represented a "significant combustible fuel source."
Zane and Gorin also noted that despite the two-month break since the April vote, County Fire Marshal Roberta MacIntyre, Ratna Ling and the Timber Cove Fire Protection District had not reached an agreement over firefighting facilities at the center.
Ratna Ling members said their community, which has already donated a fire engine to the Timber Cove department, would also provide an engine on their property and pledge to donate $20,000 a year for five years to the district.