Friday, September 2, 2016
Appeals Court Rejects Neighbors’ Challenges To Expansion of Buddhist Retreat
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal has rejected challenges by neighbors of a Buddhist retreat in Northern California to the expansion of various facilities onsite.
Coastal Hills Regional Preservation, a citizens’ group, argued that the county had given an unconstitutional religious preference to the Ratna Ling Retreat, in the forested hills northwest of Cazadero in western Sonoma County, by allowing “industrial” uses of the property that a secular property owner would not be permitted.
But Justice Robert Dondero, in his opinion for Div. One Wednesday, said CHRP waived that argument by not raising it in the administrative proceedings before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
The supervisors, in 2011, voted 3-2 to permit several additions to the site of the former Timberhill Ranch, including a five-bedroom guesthouse, eight seasonal tents, and storage facilities for sacred texts, along with the conversion of four storage tents to permanent structures. The retreat has for several years housed printing facilities used to reproduce sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts for distribution in Asia.
The Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, which has owned the property since 1975, says that printing the texts is an important part of its religious practice, and that the texts are distributed free of charge to monks, nuns, and laypersons whose libraries have been destroyed by Chinese authorities.
CHRP argued before the Board of Zoning Appeals, and before the supervisors, that the scale of the printing plant and storage operation on the 120-acre site would amount to an industrial operation in an area zoned for “resources and rural development.” The county, however, determined that the additions were consistent with previously approved uses, and adopted a mitigated negative declaration under the California Environmental Quality Act, finding that the environmental impacts of the project could be mitigated to insignificance.
Sonoma Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum denied CHRP’s petition for writ of mandate, which alleged violations of the Planning and Zoning Law, as well as CEQA. Among the arguments he rejected was that the expanded printing facilities and storage tents would create a significant threat of wildlife fires.
He said the printing activities would not be significantly greater than those authorized under a county use permit issued in 2004, which found the printing to be ancillary religious practice. A plan to build underground text-storage caves, proposed in 2008, was abandoned by the center in the face of community opposition.
Dondero, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the county had broad discretion under the Planning and Zoning Law to approve the center’s subsequent proposal as consistent with the general plan.
The industrialization argument, he said, doesn’t hold up because the printing activity is not conducted for profit and accounts for only 11 percent of the retreat’s revenue, money that is then used to produce more texts. Internet sales, to which the plaintiff made particular note, only amounted to $6,000 per month in 2014, the justice explained.
“[W]e disagree with CHRP’s claim that Ratna Ling’s printing operation is inconsistent with its primary function as a religious retreat merely because some of its output enters the stream of commerce,” Dondero wrote.
He went on to conclude that the possibility of wildfires did not necessitate full environmental review under CEQA, writing:
“Our review of the record shows substantial evidence supports the Board’s conclusion that the fire risks posed by the storage tents were adequately mitigated. For example…the membrane covering the steel framed storage tents was found to have met applicable fire protection standards. There is evidence in the record that the fabric is self-extinguishing and ‘cannot support combustion nor contribute fuel to a fire.’ The tents also have heat detection and fire sprinkler systems, along with a backup generator. Ratna Ling has 200 to 300 feet of defensible space around each tent. A condition of approval requires Ratna Ling to provide and maintain its own onsite fire engine.”
The county’s former head of emergency services, Dondero noted, testified that he had never seen a significant fire event originate from a structure that had heat detectors, automatic sprinklers, and defensible space.
The case is Coastal Hills Preservation v. County of Sonoma (Petranker), 16 S.O.S. 4507.
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