Sonoma County Buddhist retreat center prevail in long-running lawsuit over expansion plan
A three-year legal fight over the controversial expansion of a Buddhist retreat and publishing operation in rural northwestern Sonoma County came to an end this week when the California Supreme Court declined to hear opponents’ final challenge.
The high court’s Aug. 9 decision leaves in place an earlier ruling from the ?1st District Court of Appeal, which decided the county was not required to conduct the kind of comprehensive environmental review sought by residents concerned about the planned expansion of the Ratna Ling Retreat Center.
Fueled largely by concerns about fire risk at the retreat facility in the forested coastal hills northwest of Cazadero, opponents had wanted the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s May 16 ruling. The opponents’ failure to receive such a review marks the conclusion of their lengthy legal dispute, which began in 2014 when residents sued claiming the retreat center violated land-use standards and county officials had not conducted a proper environmental analysis.
Ultimately, the case centered around four tentlike storage structures Ratna Ling uses to house sacred texts. Opponents argued those tents posed a fire risk, but Ratna Ling supporters have contended they are safe, and noted the center implemented safeguards such as sprinklers and an on-site fire engine.
With the courts now having sided firmly in favor of the retreat center, the Ratna Ling community wants to move forward in a positive direction, said attorney Tina Wallis, who represented the center in the case.
“They recognize what a special place Sonoma County is, and they really want to work with their neighbors,” Wallis said. “They made strong commitments that they would focus on bringing the community back together ... I think they really just want to emphasize that message of reaching out to their neighbors and doing what they can to promote a strong sense of community there.”
County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said the county was pleased the Supreme Court let the appeals court decision stand, affirming the county’s 2014 use permit approval. He expressed hope Ratna Ling and its neighbors could “work together to coexist” peacefully moving forward.
Janis Grattan, the opponents’ attorney, noted the state Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision not to formally publish its final opinion in the case, meaning it can’t become legal precedent. Grattan called that a “small victory.”
“This fire risk was a big deal for my clients and people in that area,” Grattan said. “We’re glad that this does not serve as a precedent for other (similar) cases.”
The storage structures at issue in the case were initially intended to be temporary and were added years after Ratna Ling received a use permit in 2004. In 2014, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors signed off on another permit that allowed the center to make the structures permanent and build a new on-site residence, among other actions.
A group of concerned residents later sued under the name Coastal Hills Rural Preservation, triggering the three-year court battle. A county judge ruled against the group in 2015 and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld that judgment in August 2016. In November, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court for further review, directing the lower court to reconsider the matter under a different legal standard.
But even under the different standard, which is less favorable to public agencies, the appeals court was still not convinced.
Grattan said she was disappointed the high court decided not to review the appeals court decision, though she wasn’t entirely surprised.
“It’s kind of slim chances with the Supreme Court, because they don’t have to hear your case,” she said. “(But) we thought they might because they’ve been interested in our issue before.”
A five-bedroom house is the only new structure envisioned by Ratna Ling under the plan at issue in the court case, Wallis said. She was not sure when construction will start but she said the center can now proceed as soon as it’s ready.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.