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Appeals court upholds Sonoma County Buddhist center’s expansion plan

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Controversial plans to expand a Buddhist retreat and publishing operation in rural northwest Sonoma County secured another legal victory when a state appeals court last week upheld a county court judgment.

A three-judge panel from the 1st District Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed a Sonoma County judge’s ruling last year denying a challenge to the Ratna Ling Retreat Center’s expansion plans, which were approved by county officials more than two years ago. A group of citizens had sued in opposition to the project, arguing the retreat center was in violation of county land-use standards and county officials had not conducted a proper environmental review.

At the heart of the case is a land-use dispute over Ratna Ling’s publishing activities, which include a facility used to print sacred texts in addition to four tent-like storage structures originally intended to be temporary.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2014 approved a use permit allowing Ratna Ling to make the storage tents permanent and construct a new residence, among other steps. But citizens organized under a group calling itself Coastal Hills Rural Preservation have continued challenging the project.

Coastal Hills has argued the publishing operations are growing to a scale inconsistent with the proper use of Ratna Ling’s location in the forested hills northwest of Cazadero. The group has contended the printing operations and text-storage structures conflict with the county’s general plan and zoning provisions, and that the county should have conducted a more thorough environmental review.

In affirming the Sonoma County Superior Court’s judgment, the state appeals court panel on Aug. 31 also shot down a new argument from the group that the county broke state constitutional neutrality requirements by giving “special preference” to a religious organization.

“A new constitutional issue may be raised on appeal only if it involves a pure question of law that is absolutely necessary to the disposition of this appeal, and concerns a matter of public interest based on undisputed facts,” wrote Associate Justice Robert Dondero, the author of the opinion. “The present case does not satisfy this criteria.”

Dondero noted the citizens’ group had accused the county of approving a “massive industrial storage operation and drastic print facility expansion” at Ratna Ling, a characterization to which both the center and county took exception. Because the underlying facts were in dispute and the matter did not appear before the appeals court on a “clean slate,” Dondero wrote the issue could not be considered.

Associate Justice Sandra Margulies and Presiding Justice Jim Humes concurred with the opinion.

Fire safety became the major issue in the case and attorney Tina Wallis, who represented Ratna Ling, said that both courts felt there was enough evidence the county appropriately studied the matter. In fact, Dondero’s opinion said the appeals court’s review of the record showed “substantial evidence” backing the county court’s assessment that the “fire risks posed by the storage tents were adequately mitigated.”

Wallis said Ratna Ling will not actually end up building much.

“The irony of the situation is, the only new, not-already approved construction that was part of this project is a five-bedroom residence for senior members of the Buddhist community,” she said. “That would be the only construction that they would need to start — the rest of the physical structures were pre-existing prior to the master use permit application.”

Janis Grattan, an attorney who represented Coastal Hills on appeal, said the appeals court opinion was not much of a surprise given how much deference was afforded the county’s actions. She said she was worried about the precedent the case would set for land use in Sonoma County.

“Industrial uses are allowed in these rural lands if they’re tied to gravel extraction, geothermal and so on,” she said. “But this printing (and) storage operation is not using local resources — everything is trucked in and trucked out. If that’s now OK in these rural resource-zoned lands, I’m trying to imagine what would stop large industrial uses not tied to the fruits of the land from being allowed in this zoning code.”

Amicus briefs for Coastal Hills were filed by Friends of the Gualala River and Forest Unlimited, and by American Atheists in support of the argument about religious preference.

Coastal Hills has until early October to ask the California Supreme Court to review the appellate court decision. Gratton said she will recommend asking for that review because another case pending before the court could prove beneficial to their argument. The court has discretion as to whether it will take up the case.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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