At a hearing on April 5, 2012, the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments considered an application by Ratna Ling Retreat Center and Dharma Publishing for a new Use Permit. About 70 people attended, 60% were Ratna Ling supporters, the balance were long time coast residents.
Ratna Ling presented their proposal first. Senior leaders of Ratna Ling spoke at length before and after a professionally produced video about the importance of Dharma Publishing's mission to provide religious texts to Tibetan refugees. Ratna Ling argued that the printing operation was ancillary to the retreat center because making books is a part of their religious practice. This first presentation took about 40 minutes.
This was followed by a public comment period, during which each speaker is given 3 minutes. Prior to the hearing Coastal Hills Rural Preservation asked the Board Chairman and 5th District representative, Tom Lynch, for 30 minutes to make a formal presentation during the public comment period. He allowed a number of opposition speakers to give their time to Carolyne Singer. She was allowed 20 minutes to present our concerns. Carolyne made clear the issue before the Board was land use and not religious practice or religious freedom. Having covered the history of Dharma Publishing's ever expanding printing operation, in violation of their 2004 Use Permit, Carolyne was stopped before presenting arguments against Ratna Ling's present Use Permit application to expand the book manufacturing to 94 workers, remove all limits on the number of books produced and keep 40,000 square feet of "temporary" book storage tents. We also presented to the commissioners a copy of our paper and online petition with 390 signatures.
During the rest of the public comment period Ratna Ling supporters and opponents were called on randomly. Representatives for the opposition continued to present information in 3 minute segments about the inadequacy of the project's Mitigated Negative Declaration on environmental impacts, inconsistencies with the General Plan and Zoning Regulations and impacts on the surrounding community and whether the temporary tents could meet fire regulations for long term use. The inappropriateness of this industrial scale printing operation in a rural area was made very clear.
Ratna Ling supporters who spoke publicly included volunteers in the organization and contractors who had worked building the retreat center and printing operation.
Following public comment the BZA Commissioners questioned Ratna Ling (RL) representatives at length. Answering questions were two members of the RL organization, who are also lawyers working for free, ex county supervisor Mike Reilly, and hired representation Steve Butler (lawyer) and Jean Kapolcok (planning consultant).
Commissioner Dick Fogg was concerned about the printing operation "mission creep", an initial objective that keeps increasing in scope. He asked if Ratna Ling's proposed 20 year "Master Plan" would be the end of growth or if Ratna Ling would return asking for more. Other commissioner's questions were 1) Whether a county "Transient Occupancy Tax"(TOT) can be collected on retreat guests as a possible way to recover the cost of road repair. (Ratna Ling claimed that because all guests are "retreatants" they should not have to pay the TOT. As a tax-exempt religious organization the retreat center and printing operation do not pay property taxes.) 2) How much of the printing operation was "vested" in the 2004 Use Permit meaning prior approval which could not be revoked. It was unclear whether only the press building was " vested" in 2004 or whether the 40,000 sf of book storage approved by Planning without public notice or a public hearing would also be considered a "vested" right. 3) The volume and purpose of "non-textual" "sacred object" manufacture. Ratna Ling makes yoga pillows and mats, prayer beads, cards, posters, etc. for sale on their Dharma Publishing website as well as "sacred" banners and small sculptures.
The opposition was not allowed to rebut Ratna Ling's statements or present any further information to clarify the issues the board had raised.
At the end of a five hour hearing the Board took a "straw vote" to unanimously approve Ratna Ling's new Use Permit and continued the hearing until June 7, 2012 at 1 p.m. to hear County staff, Ratna Ling and public comment on two issues:
1. Whether the book storage tents, approved in 2008 as temporary, accessory structures, will pass County and State Fire Codes for use as permanent book and paper storage structures.
2. Clarify the extent of non-text manufacturing at Ratna Ling and how much product is given away and how much is sold.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
DONATE: The filing fee to appeal the Board of Zoning Adjustments decision to the Board of Supervisors is $1,052.
Accountant Ward Anderson is handling our bank account.
Make checks out to Betsy Anderson / CHRP. These are not tax deductible.
Mail checks to Betsy Anderson, P.O. Box 618, Gualala, CA 95445
Make online, tax deductible donations through our sponsor the
OWL Foundation - Open Space, Water Protection and Land Use
Scroll to Coastal Hills Rural Preservation and make a donation through Paypal.
Thank you for your support and generosity,
Coastal Hills Rural Preservation Steering Committee