Opponents of a planned expansion by a Buddhist retreat and publishing facility in rural northwest Sonoma County scored an incremental but significant legal win late last month when the California Supreme Court sent their case back to a lower court for further review.
The high court, in its Nov. 22 ruling, pointed to its recent opinion in a San Mateo County case that dealt with developments at existing facilities and the question of whether a full environmental review is required under state law. If a certain legal standard described in that case is applied to Ratna Ling, the Buddhist retreat, project opponents say it could help their cause.
At stake is whether Sonoma County will have to conduct a full environmental review of proposed changes to the retreat center, where publishing operations were originally permitted more than a decade ago. That question now rests with the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal, which previously ruled against Ratna Ling opponents but was directed by the Supreme Court to reconsider the case.
Opponents claim the Buddhist facility, because of the scale of its publishing operation, has overstepped land-use standards for its forested location in the hills northwest of Cazadero.
Ratna Ling’s four tent-like storage structures, which are used to house sacred texts, are one of the main sticking points, as opponents argue they pose a fire risk. Ratna Ling’s supporters have noted county officials concluded there was no major fire risk and pointed to safeguards including sprinklers in the structures and an onsite fire engine.
The storage structures were originally intended to be temporary and were added years after Ratna Ling received its original 2004 use permit. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2014 approved another permit allowing Ratna Ling to make the storage structures permanent and construct a new residence, among other steps.
But a group of concerned citizens organized under the name Coastal Hills Rural Preservation challenged the moves in court, contending the county neglected to order a comprehensive environmental review, among other claims.
A Sonoma County judge ruled against Coastal Hills in 2015 and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld that judgment in August. Coastal Hills petitioned the state Supreme Court for review, citing a connection to the court’s recent San Mateo decision.
In the San Mateo case, a community college district wants to demolish a decades-old garden it originally planned to leave intact. Supporters of the garden sued, arguing the change in course warranted an extensive environmental review, a step the college district decided not to pursue.
After a San Mateo County judge and a state appeals court both sided with garden supporters, an appeal by the college district resulted in the state Supreme Court sending the case back down for reconsideration. That step could result in an order to conduct a full environmental review, and Ratna Ling’s critics say the Supreme Court’s move appears to bolster their case.
“I feel pretty optimistic, because the language in San Mateo ... is pretty pointed about the need to do further environmental review in this setting, if there’s evidence that there may be a significant environmental impact,” said Janis Grattan, the attorney for Coastal Hills.
But attorney Tina Wallis, who is representing Ratna Lang, said the case now boils down to “one very narrow issue” — the storage tents. And she was confident her client would prevail.