By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Buddhist retreat in the coastal hills of northwest Sonoma County will be allowed to expand its printing of Tibetan texts, which is considered a religious practice, under a new use permit approved Thursday.
One of the conditions, however, is that the fire marshal is to inspect the four text storage facilities to correct any fire hazards, and that the retreat must adhere to any recommendations that are made.
“We will do everything we can to protect the texts,” said Gene Gretchen, director of the Ratna Ling Retreat Center, emphasizing that the texts are considered sacred. “This is not storing commercial texts, we will do whatever we need to do.”
The printing operation at Ratna Ling, which was established in 2004 at the site of the former Timberhill Resort, has been allowed by the county Board of Zoning Adjustments as a religious practice and an accessory to the retreat.
“That was absolutely integral to approving it, it is ancillary to their religion,” said board Chairman Tom Lynch.
Residents of the Seaview Ridge area above Salt Point State Park, however, are still concerned over how production has increased over the years and the fire hazard they believe the text storage poses.
“Whether the books are sacred or not, they are still books, they are still paper and they still burn,” said Carolyne Singer, spokeswoman for Coastal Hills Rural Preservation, which is made up of area ranchers and landowners.
The retreat center, established when the Berkeley-based Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Centers bought Timberhill Resort, is an annex to Odiyan, a Buddhist monastery in the hills nearby that was founded by Tarthang Tulku, an exiled Tibetan lama, in 1975.
Soon after Ratna Ling was founded, it received county approval to move Dharma Press, its book-publishing operation, from Berkeley to the property.
The facility prints Tibetan-language texts that are meant to be distributed free to Buddhist monasteries in the Himalaya region. The books were destroyed by Chinese Communists between 1959 and 1961 as part of the Cultural Revolution.
The printing facility, hidden from the view off Hauser Bridge Road, is half the size of a football field and has six modern and old presses that turn out about 100,000 texts a year.
At times, production hit 300,000, exceeding what the county had permitted in 2006.
The county board, which is part of the planning agency and makes decisions on permit applications and zoning variances, is now restricting the retreat to one 24-foot truck a day. Retreat officials have said that will allow some expansion of the current operation.
The board also approved a new dormitory, seasonal campground and increase in the retreat capacity to 122 and the number of printing plant workers to 94.
Mike Singer, chief of the Timber Cove Fire Department, raised a concern that the conversion of the four large tents from temporary text storage to permanent storage, with texts stacked more than 12 feet high, created a fire danger.
“We are all volunteers, the station is unmanned and we wouldn’t get there until at least 15 minutes,” Singer said. “We are not equipped or trained to fight high-pile storage fires.”
The board included in the new permit the requirement that the storage facilities be inspected and Ratna Ling enact any necessary safety measures.