A large-scale, industrial printing factory, Dharma Press, was installed in the rural, coastal hills of Sonoma County without an Environmental Impact Report and contrary to the General Plan. This Resources and Rural Development area (RRD) is designated by the county for open space, recreation, agriculture, animal husbandry, and those industries and commercial businesses that utilize, serve, and process the products of the land.
This project substantially diverges from the General Plan and requires a General Plan Amendment and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The Mitigated Negative Declaration that was issued for Dharma Press in 2004 is based on misleading documents supplied by the applicant, and incomplete, out-of-date, professional reports paid for by the applicant. (See Appendix A)
We received a new Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration for this project in early March 2014. Although this Subsequent MND does address some of the issues, it does not adequately address public safety, wildland fire danger, traffic, hazardous chemicals, land use, and other CEQA-related subjects, carries over outdated descriptions of the project, and treats the project in a piecemeal fashion.
Raw materials and labor are transported from urban areas to this remote factory site and the product is delivered back to those same urban areas for national and international distribution. Each book is born with a huge carbon footprint. Current printing plant production requires 720 40-foot diesel truck trips per year, resulting in 72,000 truck miles annually on fragile, winding, narrow, rural roads.
Dharma Press printed successfully from industrial sections of the East Bay and Berkeley for 37 years and could continue to do so, just minutes from the Port of Oakland, their port for international export.
Having circumvented the appropriate permit designation and process, a huge industrial park has been installed in an RRD area without examining any of the following impacts: aesthetics, groundwater, water quality, grading, public safety, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, or the cumulative impact of the entire project. (See Appendix A)
Our local volunteer fire protection district is neither equipped nor trained to fight industrial print factory fires, which are extremely dangerous with high concentrations of paper products. Such factories are considered High-Pile Combustible Industrial Storage warehouses and are inappropriate in a forested High Fire Hazard Zone within a State Responsibility Area. The presence of Dharma Press in such a wooded area endangers the lives and property of all residents in the region. The 10-foot wide access road to Ratna Ling Retreat, Hauser Bridge Road, would not accommodate both emergency vehicles and evacuees in the event of a fire or other catastrophe.
In 2008 PRMD approved large tents at Ratna Ling as temporary book storage. The exemption from fire code compliance was an administrative decision based on that temporary status. There was no public hearing, CEQA review, or input from any local, state, or county agency. If the tents become permanent, as now proposed, they are required to go through regulatory review like any new membrane structure and must meet Chapter 7A of the 2007 California Building Code. PRMD exempted the tents from the Wildland Urban Interface Fire Resistive Standards by designating them as “accessory.” The size and scale of these structures, one million cubic feet, disqualify them as “accessory.”
These fragile, winding, rural roads, in places less than 10 feet wide, are a favorite route for many bicyclists and runners, offering some of the most breathtaking views in the nation. But they are poorly maintained and are deteriorating. Without any professional review of public safety issues, the county has allowed Dharma Press to add 72,000 truck and trailer miles per year and an undetermined number of other UPS, FedEx, and delivery truck miles to burden these roads.
Dharma Press and Ratna Ling Retreat are owned by a Buddhist sect founded in Berkeley in 1971. The religious conglomerate is now made up of 12 different foundations known collectively as the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center. The sect reported assets of more than $60 million according to the Security and Exchange Commission and property tax files. [See Dinkelspiel, Frances, “Retreat Center’s Expansion…” in Berkeleyside, http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/06/07/retreat-centers-expansion-plans-provoke-concern/ ] Aside from their properties in the East Bay, the group built a multi million–dollar temple and monastery, Odiyan Meditation Center, on a 1,000-acre parcel in the coastal hills near Cazadero, beginning in 1975. That land alone was assessed at $12 million.
The applicant has used misleading project descriptions and incomplete, out-of-date reports to circumvent normal procedures at the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD):
The owners of Odiyan and Dharma Press in Berkeley first applied for a PRMD use permit on March 8, 2004, asking to install a 13,000 square-foot industrial printing plant in an existing building on land they intended to purchase (formerly Timber Hill Lodge) in Cazadero. That proposal, titled “Odiyan Timber Hill Annex,” was apparently rejected by PRMD or withdrawn. (See Appendix B1)
The same group submitted a new use permit application less than five weeks later (April 15, 2004) for a printing factory “ancillary” to a newly created religious retreat, Ratna Ling. Although the 2004 approved conditional use permit designated Ratna Ling Retreat as the primary use of the property, PRMD soon approved new construction for an even larger, 18,000 square-foot industrial printing plant on the newly purchased parcel. (See Appendix B2)
PRMD staff began with a faulty premise in April 2004, and thereafter analyzed only the incremental impacts of each permit increase, never the cumulative impact of the entire project. PRMD has been entirely unclear about the basis and reasons for its staff recommendations. The April 2004 referral to planning as primarily a “retreat center” was inaccurate, as was PRMD’s reliance on a few cursory initial studies paid for by the applicant. Professionals viewing these technical reports have judged them to be misleading and incomplete (See Appendix A). The permit process should reconvene on a referral for a primarily industrial use, as it currently and illegally exists, in an RRD area.
Ratna Ling Retreat has violated significant provisions of their 2004 conditional use permit. (See Table 1) Dharma Press has been operating in violation of the 2004 permit for over seven years.
The most important limits in the 2004 conditional use permit were production limits of 100,000 books annually and 18,000 square feet of press and storage space. While rejecting one of several expansion proposals made by Ratna Ling (this one a four-story, 95,000 square-foot “text treasury”) in 2006, PRMD Deputy Director Jennifer Barrett called these original 2004 restrictions “…the limit of what is reasonable for an accessory use.” (See Appendix C) (Appendix C1)
While another of its expansion proposals was pending in 2008, Ratna Ling applied for construction of 39,000 square feet of tents for book storage. Reversing her opinion on the limits of ancillary use expressed in 2006, (See Appendix C) PRMD approved a temporary permit for the tents, and extended it again for one year in 2011. These book storage tents effectively triple the size of the printing factory from 20,000 to 60,000 square feet, without any public comment or review.
In 2012 PRMD recommended removing all limits on book production and 39,000 square feet of permanent tent storage, resulting in 60,000 square feet for Dharma Press, an allegedly “ancillary” facility. What caused Ms. Barrett to alter her definition of the limits of ancillary space (18,000 square feet) and book production (100,000 annually) and what is the basis for her divergent opinions?
Dharma Press printed over 400,000 book at Ratna Ling in 2011, quadruple the amount allowed in their 2004 use permit conditions. They are now requesting, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) recommends unlimited book production.
PRMD never responded in writing to a 300-page code enforcement complaint filed by Coastal Hills Rural Preservation (CHRP) on February 25, 2010 about violations of the 2004 conditional use permit, or a 472-page rebuttal of the 2011 Use Permit Application before the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) approved a new permit application in April 2012. Violations of the 2004 use permit were neither acknowledged nor discussed at that BZA hearing.
Permit violations were not discussed at the April 2012 BZA hearing because PRMD claimed to have “lost” the field notes of its only on-site inspection at Ratna Ling. The county inspectors never looked inside the printing plant and therefore never saw the printing presses that were relocated along with the remainder of Dharma Press from Berkeley to Cazadero in 2007. Only one press was legal; six were in operation. A recent (7/17/13) “retrospective” report written by Ben Neuman, who was manager of the of the Code Enforcement Division of PRMD at the time of inspection, still specifies no date for that unrecorded site visit and no mention is made of the six presses known to have been there at the time. (See Appendix D)
Ratna Ling and Dharma Press received only “verbal notifications of violations,” according to PRMD staff, with no written record kept of these communications. This does not seem like officially sanctioned procedure.
Everyone, no matter how rich or devout, must comply with zoning regulations. These are civil laws that apply to all citizens equally, no matter what their faith. The evolving mandates of one religious sect, the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, founded in Berkeley in 1971, should not alter land use regulations or zoning enforcement in rural Sonoma County. When the Board of Zoning Adjustment approved Ratna Ling’s use permit application in April, 2012, its chairman, Tom Lynch, stated “That was absolutely integral to approving it, it is ancillary to their religion.” [Norberg; “Buddhist press Wins O.K…” Press Democrat Newspaper 6-7-12] By this precedent, any organization with a religiously justified industrial operation could relocate to any Sonoma County RRD area.
The faulty foundation for allowing an industrial printing plant, Dharma Press, in an RRD area rests on ancillary use. Ancillary use means that the print factory must play a lesser, subordinate role to the Ratna Ling Retreat in all ways: space allotted, number of people involved, staff hours per year. Ancillary functions support the main activity on the site, as a swimming pool supports the function of a resort. This is simply not the case at Ratna Ling. Dharma Press is obviously the primary activity at the site and it does not support the retreat; rather the retreat supports the press by supplying its unpaid labor.
Dharma Press was considered an industrial use in Berkeley and was confined to an industrial district, but an even larger printing factory is considered an ancillary use in rural Sonoma County.
Ratna Ling Retreat Center’s most recent submittal (7-11-13) claims 5,301 Retreat Days in 2012, using a formula that multiplies the number of people attending retreats by the number of days each person stayed. Using this same formula and the numbers derived from the 2012 use permit (which has been greatly exceeded by violations) Dharma Press occupied 24,552 Print Factory Days in 2012. By its own formula and data, Dharma Press is obviously the primary land use on the site: 24,552 > 5,301. (See Appendix E)
Using the PRMD staff report for the April 2012 BZA hearing as reference, the structures devoted to the retreat itself include the lodge, meditation hall, library, water storage, office, linen and other storage, wellness center, and senior care facility. Altogether the retreat uses 43,900 square feet. Compare this with the space allotted to the printing operations: printing and book storage housed in 61,800 square feet and worker housing comprises another 31,200 square feet, for a total of 93,000 square feet. It is clear from the allotments of space that printing books is the primary function of the site: 93,000 > 43,900. (See Appendix A)
While many of the books produced at Dharma Press are Tibetan texts that are given away in India and Nepal, there are an undetermined number of others that are sold for profit. The use permit approved by the BZA in 2012 allows the manufacture of non-textual commercial items for profit in up to 10% of the total printing plant space. By its own count, Dharma Press sells 125 English-language books commercially, along with yoga mats and pillows, notebooks, gift-wrap, sacred art, and other objects. They are shipped directly via their online bookstore from the headquarters at Ratna Ling. We have no way to know how much profit is made, and PRMD has no way to monitor and enforce the 10% limit. (see Appendix F)
All of Dharma Publishing’s internet sales, warehousing, and commercial distribution now take place at Ratna Ling in Cazadero. This use is not mentioned in their previous or pending use permit applications, and therefore has not been approved. The daily UPS and Fed Ex trucks that serve Dharma Press’s commercial sales and distribution are not factored into any traffic reports.
Approval of Ratna Ling’s current use permit application will legalize the primary use of the property as an industrial printing factory and reward all previous misrepresentations and nine years of zoning violations.
An industrial printing factory in the Cazadero hills compromises our public safety, environmental health, and adds traffic, but is of no offsetting fiscal benefit to Sonoma County. Ratna Ling and Dharma Press pay no taxes due to a religious exemption. They utilize public roads and other infrastructure to run their operations without contributing to road construction or maintenance.
Aside from the construction phase, Ratna Ling and Dharma Press provide no jobs for local residents. The main reason for relocating Dharma Press from an industrial section of Berkeley to rural Cazadero was to be near Odiyan Retreat Center, which, along with Ratna Ling, now recruits the volunteer workers to run the industrial printing plant.
Evidence suggests that these volunteer workers are mostly young, impressionable seekers, attracted to TNMC's online advertisements. Most are seeking knowledge about themselves and Buddhism. What they find at Ratna Ling Retreat and Odiyan are exhausting work schedules, 6 or more days per week, up to 10 or 12 hours per day, and little or no safety training, benefits, or religious instruction. Some receive a $5 a day stipend. (See Appendix G)
Ratna Ling Retreat Center is the only part of the complex that the public is allowed to see. The majority of the site—press building and tower, tent book storage, and worker housing—is in reality an industrial park for Dharma Press. The public, and at times government officials, are not allowed access to the printing facilities.
Ratna Ling and Dharma Press are run by a wealthy religious organization founded in Berkeley in 1971, now 12 different foundations known collectively as the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center. This religious conglomerate reported assets of more than $60 million according to SEC and property tax files, and has a distinctly entrepreneurial focus. [See Dinkelspiel, Frances, “Retreat Center’s Expansion…” in Berkeleyside, http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/06/07/retreat-centers-expansion-plans-provoke-concern/] They have apparently hired former county supervisor Mike Reilly and former county planner Jean Kapolchok to act as consultants, and have hired a large legal firm, Clement, Fitzpatrick, and Kenworthy, to help legitimize this illegal industrial use in an RRD area.
Coastal Hills Rural Preservation is a group of Sonoma County residents that is funded by small donations. We are working for the common good by preserving the integrity of our General Plan an d one of the most beautiful rural areas in Sonoma County. We hope that future generations profit from this effortl. Please help us with this good work. Regulate Ratna Ling and Dharma Press.