Sonoma County violated county and state laws when it approved a 60,000-square-foot expansion of a printing press at a Buddhist retreat in rural Cazadero, say a group of residents who filed suit against the county July 24.
“They need to have an [environmental impact report] to determine whether or not this printing plant should even be there,” says Coastal Hills Rural Preservation member Ward Anderson.
The county? “We’re confident in the legality of the board’s decision,” says Sonoma County deputy counsel Verne Ball.
The lawsuit cites a Timber Cover Fire District concern that firefighters aren’t equipped to handle a large emergency at an expanded Dharma Publishing facility at Ratna Ling Retreat.
The county gave final approval to an industrial-use permit in late June; it allows for up to 122 people to live and work at Ratna Ling. The mission: print sacred Buddhist texts for distribution to Tibetan monasteries.
Opponents point to a dangerous combo: rural facility, many employees, small FD. “If you’ve got a fire, you’ve got 120 people heading in the other direction,” says Anderson. Access to the site is limited to one-way lanes in each direction.
Expect a fight in county court within six months. “Cases settle quite frequently, but there hasn’t been any discussion in this case,” says Ball. “The applicant and neighbors are very adversarial.” —Nicolas Grizzle
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.
Bright yellow flags flutter in the breeze over a large metal building in the coastal hills of northwest Sonoma County, miles from urban hubbub and lights. In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the banners are supposed to release prayers for peace and compassion into world.
Inside the half-acre sized steel building, presses run 12 hours a day, churning out sacred texts bound for the Himalayan region to nurture the Buddhist culture devastated by China’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s.
Volunteers operating the presses at the Ratna Ling Retreat Center conduct a ceremony around a gold-colored stupa, a monument symbolizing the mind of the Buddha, and wash their hands before beginning work each day. A sign along the private road to the printing plant advises: “Banana Slug Crossing Be Aware.”
But the site, despite its reverent mission, is the source of angst reverberating in the redwoods of Seaview Ridge, a bucolic community of homes and ranches above Salt Point State Park, 90 minutes by car from Santa Rosa.
Cloverdale’s plan to stretch its city boundaries south to take in the historic community of Asti has been dropped, victim to criticism that the move would induce growth and threaten agricultural lands.
In the face of opposition from environmental groups and resistance from the government agency that approves annexations, the city recently agreed to limit its reach and exclude the former Italian Swiss Colony site approximately two miles from city limits.
Critics pointed out the extension of sewer and water to Asti would be expensive and there would be pressure to extend the utilities to adjacent properties and unincorporated county governed “islands” in between.
“We pretty much conceded Asti will not work,” said City Councilman Joe Palla.
A prolonged public hearing that highlighted divisions on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and in the rural community of Cazadero concluded Tuesday night with a 3-2 vote finalizing an expansion plan for a Buddhist retreat in the coastal hills.
The four-hour hearing before a crowd that spilled into a hallway focused on whether Ratna Ling Retreat Center’s book storage and printing press — the latter described by critics as an “industrial” facility — posed a fire hazard in the wooded hills.
But the vote, with Board Chairman David Rabbitt and Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire voting to approve the expansion plan, did not cover the press used to print Tibetan Buddhist texts. The county signed off on the press in 2004, according to a county planning staff report.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin applauded Ratna Ling’s goal of preserving sacred texts in four existing buildings on the Hauser Road property, but voted against the project, calling it a poor land use precedent in an era of prolonged drought.
“The question is, are we at capacity for vineyard acreage, and what are the cumulative impacts?” Mark Luce, Napa board chairman
NAPA — Amid calls for a moratorium on new vineyards and wineries in Napa County because of concerns about visitor traffic and water shortages, county government’s top decision-makers on such projects directed staff to give them a clearer view on the situation by this fall and develop solutions for streamlining the environmental-review process and informing more neighbors about project proposals.
Concerns about how the wine industry grows and uses land in Napa County have been around as far back as the establishment of the trailblazing agricultural preserve in 1968 and the Winery Definition Ordinance WDO of 1990 plus subsequent additions. But they have reached a new fervor in the past few years, as direct-to-consumer DTC marketing, particularly exclusive experiences on estate property, is seen as the lifeline for the luxury side of the business, a local plan for greenhouse-gas emissions curtailment emerges and California’s farms are being increasingly scrutinized for use of groundwater, especially in a year with a governor’s emergency drought declaration.
The confluence of all these streams of public policy flowed through a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission on May 20. The two meet annually in May and October to discuss land-use planning issues, but the urgency of this meeting was exacerbated by increasing public complaints that they aren’t finding out about wine-related projects soon enough, concern from applicants that the environmental review process was taking too long, neighbor worries about new wells and effects on aquifers, a number of appeals of project approvals and rise in the hospitality-related elements of projects.
The Rohnert Park City Council on Tuesday approved changes to a long-stalled housing project just north of Sonoma State University that could add up to 1,645 homes starting as soon as next year.
The University District development, Rohnert Park’s first large housing project in 24 years, was approved in 2006, but ground to a halt during the recession. Last summer, developer Brookfield Homes revived the project with proposed changes to the plan to reflect the shifting housing market.
“I think the changes we have made are relative to 2014,” Councilwoman Pam Stafford said. “This is what we needed to do to make it feasible.”
The revised plan on 300 acres west of Petaluma Hill Road includes 130 more medium-density homes and about 400 fewer high-density, multifamily units.
In 2010, the City of Cloverdale was the final city in Sonoma County to pass an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Environmental and smart growth advocates, as well as dedicated local residents spent years educating the public and governmental leaders of Cloverdale about the benefits of a UGB to prevent sprawl, encourage “in-fill” and downtown development, and protect the quality of life for local residents into the future. Unfortunately, when it came time to place the measure before voters, the City Council insisted on including three large land “islands,” referred to as Exception Areas in official planning documents, into the Southern planning area of the UGB. These Exception Areas include an Industrial Area, part of the Raines Creek Water District, and the historic Swiss-Italian Colony of Asti. Voters ultimately passed the measure, setting up a battle sure to come in the future.
The time for that fight has come.
The Asti area is four miles from the existing city boundary. At risk is the hillside and vineyard land in between. Recently, the City of Cloverdale applied for an updated Sphere of Influence (SOI) at the Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). From the LAFCO website, “A Sphere of Influence is defined as the probable physical boundary and service area of a local agency. Territory must be within a city or district’s sphere of influence to be considered for annexation to that city or district.” LAFCO goes on to say that SOI’s, “Are intended to discourage urban sprawl and the premature conversion of agricultural and open space lands.” This stated philosophy clearly goes against the proposal to add land islands far removed from the existing boundary to the City SOI.
The problems with the proposed Cloverdale Sphere of Influence are many. First, the land between the islands could be developed at the expiration of the UGB in 2030, or sooner if the city or a developer were able to convince voters to amend the UGB. This would be a massive sprawl South of the existing town. Second, allowing islands of the city in the county area takes away the local county residents ability to have equal influence in local government. County residents living in the Asti area/Alexander Valley are unable to vote for the Cloverdale City Council, thus removing their power of democratic choice.
Deer, mountain lion, coyote, bobcat and rare species that include steelhead trout, northern spotted owl and California red-legged frog live on or frequent the site. Sonoma Creek, which runs through the center’s property for about three quarters of a mile, is one of the county’s most significant streams for steelhead.
A coalition of Sonoma County government agencies and environmental groups is ramping up its fight to protect the Sonoma Developmental Center from development and to maintain residential care for an unspecified number of severely disabled clients.
About 500 people reside at the Eldridge facility, which also is Sonoma Valley’s largest employer. But the site’s future is in doubt after a state task force in December recommended that California’s four remaining developmental centers be downsized.
Concerns the state could abandon the nearly 1,000-acre Sonoma Valley site have galvanized the local community and caught the attention of the North Coast’s legislative delegation. The group’s demands include that the center’s open spaces be protected and for public recreational facilities to be expanded, in addition to maintaining some level of services for the disabled.
Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was viewed as a strong environmental voice on the California Coastal Commission, has resigned his position, saying that the commission’s role was weakened by the death of long-time executive director Peter Douglas, and other factors.
Blank, who was appointed in 2007 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and later reappointed by Gov. Brown, said the commission has been successful in protecting the coast because “it took unpopular positions upsetting developers who have fought with the agency.” The key to the effectiveness of the commission and staff was their being "unreasonable" — uncompromising — in their desire to protect the coast, he said.
“For the last three decades, the Coastal Commission has protected the coast while miraculously managing to avoid regulatory capture,” he added in his June 27 resignation letter to Gov. Brown.
“Unfortunately, Peter Douglas is gone. Current commissioners, including your appointees want the commission to be reasonable. In fact, they want a new reasonable director,” he wrote.
In a separate interview, Blank said environmentalists were not following the commission as closely as in years past, there has been a series of pro-development commissioners and those who appoint commissioners have not selected aggressive coastal protectionists.