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Judge rules against neighbors’ challenge to Buddhist center Ratna Ling expansion

A Sonoma County judge has tentatively ruled against a citizens group that went to court to challenge expansion plans for a Buddhist retreat and printing facility in the forested hills northwest of Cazadero.

Judge Elliott Daum still has nearly three months to craft a final ruling in the case against the Ratna Ling Retreat Center and against Sonoma County, whose officials, at various levels, have approved of the plans and previous changes at the site.

But Daum’s eight-page tentative ruling issued March 25, took a point-by-point approach to the lawsuit and found neighbors’ arguments insufficient to persuade him to overturn the county’s approvals.

The project “appears to involve a number of changes to the existing, approved uses and facilities,” Daum wrote, “but they are all of the same kind, each rather small, each change merely modifies individual components of the existing ones and sometimes without any increase at all.

“Contrary to Petitioner’s argument it does not involve a huge increase of printing facilities,” he said.

His assertion rebuts key positions articulated by the suit’s plaintiffs, a group calling itself Coastal Hills Rural Preservation.

The case hinges on the group’s belief that years of building creep at the spiritual retreat site and plans for additional development would impose an industrial-scale printing plant and warehousing operation on the rural community in violation of the county’s general plan and zoning ordinance, without proper environmental review.

Daum also disputed critics’ contention that the printing function and four tent-like text-storage structures create an unmitigated wildfire threat and industrial fire hazard that the area’s minimally funded, volunteer fire department is not equipped to handle.

“The evidence demonstrates that the Tents comply with or exceed all applicable building and fire codes,” Daum wrote.

The 120-acre property off Hauser Bridge Road east of Salt Point State Park is zoned for resources and rural development.

It offers guest lodging and facilities for personal and group retreats, as well as a small permanent community and printing facilities used to reproduce sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts for distribution in Asia and elsewhere.

A county use permit issued in 2004 authorized printing on the site as an ancillary religious practice.

Ratna Ling argued in court briefs that reproducing sacred texts has been part of Tibetan Buddhism since the eighth century - long before the modern-day destruction of Tibetan libraries by the Chinese government heightened the need to preserve and circulate the collective wisdom of its practitioners.

But neighbors say the organization has continued to expand its operation in a manner they believe goes beyond what was authorized in 2004, including bringing in additional printing presses to churn out more books and adding the four “temporary” tent structures that now will be allowed to remain permanently.

A now-abandoned 2008 scheme to build underground text-storage caves ratcheted up the discontent. Neighbors and other citizens in the region, aided by several conservation groups, have been trying since to contain new development. They have challenged decisions by the county Board of Zoning Adjustments and the Board of Supervisors, who voted 3-2 last June to permit several additions to the site, including a five-bedroom guesthouse, eight seasonal tents, storage facilities and conversion of the four storage tents to permanent structures.

Daum conceded the permit for the “temporary” tents. But he wrote that the 2004 permit provided wide latitude for printing activities and said there were no changes proposed to the printing facility itself beyond increasing occupancy from 27 to 94 people, with an overall maximum occupancy of 122 people at the center at any given time.

Daum’s tentative ruling was issued in advance of a March 30 court hearing during which lawyers on all sides were permitted to argue the case in an attempt to influence the final outcome.

Deputy County Counsel Verne Ball and attorney Tina Wallis, who represents Ratna Ling, said Daum concluded the hearing with a pledge to review all the arguments and case law presented to him before drafting his ruling.

“We think the tentative ruling was well reasoned and fully in accord with the law; we hope that it will be confirmed,” Wallis said.

Bruce Johnson, a sculptor who lives about four miles from the retreat center and has led the effort to reduce its impact, said it’s not clear neighbors have the money or will to continue their battle if the current case goes against them.

But he said everyone in Sonoma County should be concerned about how the situation has played out, given that half of the county is zoned as the Ratna Ling site is.

“It’s just incredibly excessive land use,” he said. “I mean, how can you have - on a single parcel (zoned for resources and rural development) - how can you have 160,000 square feet of buildings and 122 people living there?”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@press?democrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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