Legal Challenge to Industrial Printing in the Coastal Hills

The Scott River in Siskiyou County

All that you see in this aerial view taken in the coastal hills of western Sonoma County was built without a General Plan Amendment and the required Environmental Impact Report. This industrial land use is unrelated to our local agriculture or natural resources and defies our General Plan.  A major expansion of this printing factory, Dharma Press, was recently narrowly approved by the Board of Supervisors with a special exception for a charismatic religious use.

Under the cover of a religious retreat, Dharma Press has moved its entire printing factory from an industrial section of Berkeley to the coastal forest and is now producing over 400,000 books annually there. Ratna Ling Retreat and Dharma Press pay no taxes, nor do they provide jobs to local residents, but they threaten our safety with highly combustible, dense-volume paper storage warehouses in a forested area, and burden our fragile, narrow roadways with 40-foot tractor trailers daily. Many of these books are sold commercially for profit.

This is an important land-use issue that will set a precedent for similarly zoned parcels in Sonoma County. Say yes to preserving our General Plan and rural coastal hills and no to unrelated and unregulated industry in our Resource and Rural Development areas.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation filed suit July 24 in Sonoma County Superior Court to stop the expansion of Dharma Press at Ratna Ling Retreat (35755 Hauser Bridge Road), an industrial-scale printing and storage facility in an otherwise rural area of the Cazadero hills above Salt Point State Park.

The lawsuit contends that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ June 24, 2014 approval of the 60,000 square-foot printing facility is in violation of CEQA and did not adequately study the environmental impacts of critical concerns, such as fire hazards, public safety, and truck traffic. Therefore the project is inconsistent with the General Plan. It also opens the door to other industrial uses in rural areas that make up more than half the county land area. This decision is inappropriate and dangerous, given that the development is located in a remote, coastal, woodland area, susceptible to wildfires, with limited access on a 10-foot wide road.

Fire Chief Michael Singer was unequivocal at the Board of Supervisor’s hearing, stating, “The Timber Cove Fire District does not now have either the equipment or the ability to fight industrial fires. The current conditions of the proposed use permit are inadequate to protect the people, property, and natural resources of this district.”

The lawsuit asks the court to order Ratna Ling, a Buddhist retreat, to prepare a full environmental impact report on the consequences of the project, including a complete analysis of fire danger. The suit also states that in addition to CEQA violations, the development is also inconsistent with the Sonoma County Hazard Mitigation Plan (2011), and that the county authorized activities where impacts were not adequately examined.

Ratna Ling Retreat received a county permit in 2004 allowing it to operate a religious retreat and one accessory printing press with associated equipment in an 18,750 square-foot building with a maximum of 27 workers. The single printing press was to produce a limited number of non-commercial Tibetan texts annually. The parent organization, the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center had for many years run a large commercial printing operation, Dharma Press, printing at least 125 English-language books and gift items for profit in an industrial section of Berkeley.

By 2007, in violation of its permit, Ratna Ling Retreat added five additional industrial presses capable of printing four tons of paper each day. They also added buildings, including storage areas for paper, solvents and inks, some of which are highly flammable. The organization also moved its entire commercial, for-profit printing operation from Berkeley to the remote site.

This industrial operation in an area not zoned for such intense industrial use will set a dangerous precedent that could change the character and quality of life of this remote rural setting. “Over one-half of Sonoma County is zoned Resource & Rural Development (RRD). The Board of Supervisors allowed this industrial use through an exception for a charismatic religious group. The county should not allow dangerous industrial development in a rural area that lacks the necessary infrastructure of adequate roads and emergency services,” said CHRP member Ward Anderson.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation is a group of Sonoma County citizens concerned with preserving the integrity of rural Sonoma County and its resources from inappropriate land use. We invite interested members of the public to join us in this effort.

For more information, contact:
Ward Andersen: wanderso@mcn.org – 707.884.3949 or
Bruce Johnson: sculptorbruce@gmail.com – 707.847.3323.