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Citizens group files suit to stop Buddhist retreat's expansion

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The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ approval of a permit for a Buddhist retreat center and its publishing operation in the coastal hills west of Cazadero violated county land use standards and state law, according to a lawsuit filed by a citizens’ organization.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation, a group based in the Seaview Ridge area, alleged that Ratna Ling Retreat Center illegally expanded the printing plant operation and paper text storage structures on rural Hauser Bridge Road above Salt Point State Park.

In granting a new use permit that authorized all current operations and some additions to the retreat center on June 24, the supervisors violated state law by failing to require an environmental impact report, the lawsuit said. The board’s approval came on a 3-2 vote with Chairman David Rabbitt and supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike Maguire in favor, and supervisors Susan Gorin and Shirlee Zane opposed.

“This expansion of the printing and retreat operations at Ratna Ling was accomplished in a piecemeal fashion, avoiding regulatory and public scrutiny of the project as a whole,” according to the 30-page suit filed last week.

The suit seeks an immediate court order preventing Ratna Ling from making any additions based on the new permit, and ultimately an order rescinding the permit’s approval and requiring an environmental report that includes fire safety issues.

Ratna Ling critics, including Timber Cove Fire District officials and three environmental groups, have argued that the “industrial scale” printing and storage of sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts poses a fire hazard in the wooded hills of northwest Sonoma County and sets a bad land use precedent.

“It looks like the county can decide to put a factory in your area if they like the people (proposing it),” said Bruce Johnson, a sculptor and one of the Coastal Hills group’s six steering committee members.

The group is now “pared down” to those six people, but once had 175 signatures on a petition opposing a previous Ratna Ling expansion plan that was withdrawn, Johnson said.

Deputy County Counsel Verne Ball said Monday the county had not been served with the lawsuit and limited his comment to say the county “is confident in the legality of the board’s action.”

Tina Wallis, Ratna Ling’s attorney, said she was “confident a court will find that the county followed the law.”

County officials, including Carrillo and planning director Tennis Wick, said earlier this month they hoped Ratna Ling and its neighbors, including the Timber Cove fire department, could establish some rapport.

If the Coastal Hills group were to file a lawsuit, that might not happen, Carrillo said.

Johnson, a Seaview Ridge resident since 1973, said earlier that the supervisors’ action left the group no alternative to legal action.

The lawsuit reiterated Timber Cove’s contention that the all-volunteer department lacks the equipment and training to combat an “industrial fire” at Ratna Ling.

The department asked that Ratna Ling be required to buy it a $375,000 fire engine and a $150,000 addition to its Seaview Road station to accommodate the vehicle.

But the county, finding that Ratna Ling’s book storage buildings did not pose “an enhanced fire risk,” required the Buddhist center to pay the fire district $2,500 a year for training and to purchase its own fire engine.

There was no legal justification for a permit condition costing more than $500,000, officials said.

Ratna Ling, which purchased a 100-acre guest ranch in 2004 and relocated its Dharma Publishing operation to the site, uses volunteer workers to produce sacred texts that are sent to 3,300 institutions in India, Nepal and Bhutan to sustain the Buddhist culture driven out of Tibet in the 1950s.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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