On August 31, the First Appellate District issued its decision in Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma, which centered on the applicable standards and appropriateness of proceeding on a subsequent mitigated negative declaration (SMND), rather than an environmental impact report (EIR) under CEQA, where changes had been incorporated in a religious facility use permit that was originally reviewed under a mitigated negative declaration (MND). The appeals court affirmed the trial court judgment for the lead agency, Sonoma County, ruling that use of the SMND was appropriate and that the revised permit was not inconsistent with the County’s “Resources and Rural Development” general plan designation.
In 2004, the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC) purchased a resort located in an area of Sonoma County designated as Resources and Rural Development in the County’s general plan. TNMC renamed the resort the Ratna Ling Retreat Center and submitted an application for a master use permit (MUP) to construct 19 additional cabins, a library, a healing center, a therapeutic pool, and a new 18,750 square foot printing press facility for the printing of sacred Buddhist texts in the Tibetan language. The application also proposed expansion of the existing lodge into a meditation hall with a kitchen and dining facilities, and a maximum occupancy of 60 persons. The County adopted an MND (2004 MND) and approved the MUP, subject to 58 conditions of approval. Those conditions designated the printing press operation a noncommercial “ancillary use” and set the maximum occupancy for that operation at 27 persons, with hours of operation 7am-10pm, seven days a week. The accompanying staff report indicated that the printing press operation was intended to be based on the use of one printing press.
In 2006, TNMC installed five additional printing presses at the Ratna Ling facility. Then, in 2008, Ratna Ling received a temporary zoning permit for four steel-frame storage tents to house a “Sacred Text Treasury.” Combined, the four tents covered 39,270 square feet – over twice the size of the 18,750 square foot printing press facility. Also in 2008, the County adopted an MND (2008 MND) and approved a use permit allowing construction of a reservoir for Ratna Ling’s water system and to modify the size and location of the healing center.
In 2010, a citizens group filed a complaint with the County (2010 Complaint), alleging that Ratna Ling was operating in violation of the conditions of the 2004 MUP – in particular, that the printing press operation was no longer an ancillary function, given that (1) the combined square footage of the printing press operation and the four temporary storage tents was equal to the square footage of Ratna Ling’s retreat-related facilities, (2) the six printing presses were operating around-the-clock, with up to 40 workers present each day, and (3) truck traffic related to the operation had increased by 12 to 16 times over Ratna Ling’s 2004 estimate. TNMC responded that the sacred text production was “a central religious practice and provides essential support to the primary purpose” of Ratna Ling as a Buddhist retreat.
In 2011, Ratna Ling submitted an application for an MUP that would (among other things) secure permanent status for the four temporary storage tents, allow for a storage use not to exceed the combined square footage of those tents, and raise the occupancy limit to 98 persons (2011 Project). In 2012, the County Board of Zoning Adjustments approved the permit and adopted an MND for the project (2012 MND). These approvals were appealed to the County Board of Supervisors (BOS) by a project opponent. In 2013, Ratna Ling submitted an updated proposal for the 2011 Project, and Coastal Hills Rural Preservation (CHRP) subsequently refiled the 2010 Complaint. In 2014, the County released a 46-page subsequent MND (SMND) to the 2004 and 2008 MNDs, which superseded the 2012 MND.
The County BOS adopted the SMND, denied the project’s opponent’s appeal, and approved the 2011 Project subject to 96 conditions of approval. CHRP then filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint in Sonoma County Superior Court, challenging the actions of the BOS. In April 2015, the trial court denied the writ, and CHRP appealed. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting CHRP’s claims as follows:
CHRP first argued that the 2011 Project was a new project under CEQA, as opposed to a modification of Ratna Ling’s prior MUPs, and therefore the fair argument test should apply regarding the County’s decision to proceed with the SMND rather than an EIR. The court rejected this claim, holding that the County appropriately viewed the 2011 Project as falling within the scope of CEQA section 21166 and Guidelines section 15162, as (1) the printing press operation was evaluated in the 2004 MND and authorized by the MUP issued at that time, and (2) although the storage tents were not evaluated in the 2004 or 2008 MNDs, it was “undisputed that these structures are integral to Ratna Ling’s existing printing press operation.” As such, the 2011 Project was not a new project for CEQA purposes, and the County’s decision not to require an EIR would be reviewed under the substantial evidence standard. (Note that this ruling comprises issues that are currently pending before the California Supreme Court in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District—the standards of review governing project modifications and whether Guideline section 15162 appropriately extends to projects initially approved by a mitigated negative declaration. A decision in that case is expected by September 21.)
The appeals court then rejected CHRP’s claim that the record did not include substantial evidence demonstrating that the 2011 Project would not have a significant impact with respect to wildland fires or wildlife hazards. The court also ruled against CHRP with respect to the County’s inclusion of the storage tents as part of the baseline conditions for the impacts analysis, finding that the tents were, in fact, part of the existing physical conditions at the site, and, in any event, the County fully evaluated the impacts of the tents. Finally, the court held that the County did not improperly defer study of fire impacts until after the adoption of the SMND by incorporating a condition requiring that the applicant coordinate with the Fire Marshal to review existing fire-fighting infrastructure and install any additional onsite infrastructure that the Fire Marshal deemed appropriate.
General Plan/Zoning Consistency
CHRP argued that the 2011 Project involved “rampant commercial activity” associated with the production, storage, and sale of printed materials, and therefore was inconsistent with the General Plan’s Resources and Rural Development (RRD) designation covering the Ratna Ling property, which permits “visitor serving uses,” and the related zoning ordinance, which includes “noncommercial clubs and lodges” as an allowable use, along with “accessory” buildings and uses that are appurtenant to the operation of allowable uses. The appeals court rejected this claim, finding no evidence in the record that Ratna Ling’s printing activities were undertaken for profit: the undisputed evidence showed that 98 percent of its total printing output was given away for free, only 11 percent of its total revenue came from printing operations, and proceeds from those operations were used to support the production of more religious texts. The court held that these operations were not inconsistent with Ratna Ling’s primary function as a religious retreat “merely because some of its output enters the stream of commerce.”
The court also rejected CHRP’s claim that the printing operations should be deemed “industrial” uses inconsistent with the RRD designation: though the printing operations intensified over time, the County did not abuse its discretion in categorizing those operations as ancillary to the retreat center use. Finally, the court found that the BOS “fully considered the County’s land use policies and the extent to which the 2011 Project conforms to those policies,” and, given the deferential standard of review, the court would not reweigh conflicting evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the BOS.
The Court also found that (1) CHRP failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to its argument that adoption of the SMND violated California Constitution provisions relating to the establishment of religion, and (2) CHRP failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to its claim that the County engaged in impermissible spot zoning when it approved the 2011 Project, and, even if it had exhausted this claim, nothing in the record or the relevant zoning regulations suggested that the County had violated Government Code section 65852 by authorizing a use at Ratna Ling that was prohibited at all other parcels in the same zone.