Bright yellow flags flutter in the breeze over a large metal building in the coastal hills of northwest Sonoma County, miles from urban hubbub and lights. In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the banners are supposed to release prayers for peace and compassion into the world.
Inside the half-acre sized steel building, presses run 12 hours a day, churning out sacred texts bound for the Himalayan region to nurture the Buddhist culture devastated by China’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s.
Volunteers operating the presses at the Ratna Ling Retreat Center conduct a ceremony around a gold-colored stupa, a monument symbolizing the mind of the Buddha, and wash their hands before beginning work each day. A sign along the private road to the printing plant advises: “Banana Slug Crossing Be Aware.”
But the site, despite its reverent mission, is the source of angst reverberating in the redwoods of Seaview Ridge, a bucolic community of homes and ranches above Salt Point State Park, 90 minutes by car from Santa Rosa.
Ratna Ling, welcomed by most residents a decade ago when it took over a 100-acre site on Hauser Bridge Road where a high-end commercial resort had been planned, is now resented for the growth of its publishing arm, introducing what critics consider an “industrial operation” into an area designated for the preservation of natural resources and rural living.
“Ratna Ling is a company town,” said Bruce Johnson, a sculptor who lives and works on Seaview Road, aptly named for expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. If it paid wages instead of depending on volunteer labor, the tax-exempt Buddhist-owned operation would have a “million-dollar payroll,” he said.
But the issue isn’t money; it’s about a controversial land use decision and the threat of wildfire in the drought-parched woodlands, where an all-volunteer fire department defends a 48-square-mile area with the closest mutual aid agency a half hour away.
“A lot of folks are very upset about it,” said Dennis Meredith, chief of the 20-member Timber Cove Fire Protection District, based on Seaview Road four miles from Ratna Ling.
Fire was a major issue during a contentious, four-hour public hearing on Ratna Ling’s updated use permit before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on June 24. It culminated in a 3-2 vote to approve the permit, rejecting Timber Cove’s request for a $375,000 fire engine and a $150,000 addition to its station to accommodate the vehicle.
Instead, the board majority — Chairman David Rabbitt and Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire — accepted Ratna Ling’s offer to pay the fire district $2,500 for training and buy its own fire engine, which the retreat center since has acquired. Supervisors Susan Gorin and Shirlee Zane were opposed.
The use permit approval, now final after more than two years of consideration, brought no peace to Seaview Ridge. A citizens’ group called Coastal Hills Rural Preservation is considering legal action, said Johnson, a member of the organization’s steering committee.
“We’re not just NIMBYs, honest,” Johnson said, citing support from three environmental organizations — the Sierra Club, Friends of the Gualala River and Sonoma County Conservation Action — that also objected to Ratna Ling’s printing plant. “It’s industrial land use. There are industrial risks.”
Black and yellow signs posted along Hauser Bridge Road call for “no industrial printing in rural Sonoma County,” adding “no exceptions.”