By MATT BROWN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plans to upgrade one of Sonoma County’s largest Buddhist centers have drawn a serene mountaintop meditation retreat into a fight with neighbors fed up with the crumbling condition of the county’s rural road network.
The Sonoma Mountain Zen Center on Sonoma Mountain Road southeast of Santa Rosa plans to build a new 4,330-square-foot meditation hall, two new residential buildings with 12 dormitory rooms and host an annual event of up to 500 people.
Zen center leaders say the project will replace existing buildings and will not significantly expand the 40-year-old place of worship.
“We’re just trying to comply with the county so that we can exist how we are,” said Demian Nyoze Kwong, leader of practice at the center. “We’re not doubling in size. It’s not an expansion. All we want to do is sit here.”
But the plans, which would amend the center’s 1992 use permit, have touched off a dispute with some Bennett Valley residents who say Sonoma Mountain Road, a narrow, winding, pot-holed county byway, is ill-equipped to handle the two-year construction project and events at the center that critics say will increase traffic.
“I’m against it,” said Scott Fountain, a general contractor who lives off Sonoma Mountain Road. “The condition of that road is abhorrent. To think that they are going to expand the center and they aren’t going to do anything to fix the road, it’s going to beat the road to holy hell.”
The conflict puts a different twist on land-use disputes in the county, which more often target vineyard development, open space preservation or city-centered big-box stores.
In this case, with upkeep of the county’s ailing 1,382-mile road network now a major political and fiscal issue, even a long-established religious retreat with famous supporters has been drawn into a fight.
Craig Harrison, president of Save Our Sonoma Roads, which advocates for greater road spending, said that opposition to the Zen center project is fueled by discontent about road conditions. The county-maintained network has consistently been ranked among the worst in the Bay Area.
“No one wants to pick on the Zen center,” said Harrison, who lives off Sonoma Mountain Road. “I’m concerned with any additional impact on roads that are turning to rubble. If the roads were in good condition, this issue would never have come up.”
Vickie Brown, a Sonoma Mountain Road resident, said she would support the project if the road was fixed first.
“It’s the events that are a concern for me if they aren’t going to fix the road,” she said. “The roads are just going to get worse. If the county says yes to improving the roads, then go ahead and approve the permit.”
The dispute illustrates what could be a greater liability for land-use projects seeking approval in the unincorporated area.
In the face of flat state support, county supervisors have struggled over the past decade to maintain funding for road upkeep. This fiscal year and last, they’ve dipped into special reserves to bring county support back to historical levels. But the extra spending is aimed only at a fraction of the overall network and has failed to calm a political storm that began three years ago, when the county unveiled a plan that could ultimately lead to most roads returning to gravel.
The revolt has intersected with changes at the Zen center, which for the past three years has hosted an event called the Mandala Bazaar, with food, performances and vendors. It attracts up to 500 people, more than allowed under the current permit, which allows for a slightly smaller meditation hall and a yearly 200-person event. This year’s gathering is Sept. 7.
The site currently has a number of buildings and cabins that are not up to county code. Upgrading the center and modifying the use permit would bring the facility into compliance, said Karin Theriault, a county planner.
“I’m not sure that the neighbors understand that what they are proposing has been going on for awhile,” she said.
The Zen center will have to pay fines for their code violations, even if their permit is amended, Theriault said. The penalty fees will be determined at a later time, and could run into the thousands of dollars.
Not all neighbors are against the project. Carolyn Ferris, who lives on land adjacent to the center, has had no complaints with her neighbor in 20 years and doesn’t think the project will cause any problems.
“I know that the members of the Sonoma Zen Center would never take any action that would cause difficulty or harm to neighbors or to the environment and I completely support their plans and efforts,” she said in an email.
The Sonoma Mountain Zen Center was founded in 1973 by Jakusho Kwong-roshi on 80 acres of rolling hills. Practitioners follow the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism, which was imported to Japan in the 13th century and took root in the U.S. in the 1950s.
The center has about 120 members and operates on donations. The new meditation hall will cost $2.2 million, Kwong said, which was raised over the past 10 years. Funds for the construction of the residence hall have not yet been raised, he said.
Former NBA coach Phil Jackson, who has frequented the Zen center and is friends with Kwong-roshi, has helped raise funds, including speaking at an event last year at Santa Rosa Junior College with basketball Hall-of-Famer Chris Mullen.
The center’s permit is subject to environmental review, said Theriault, who will be accepting comments from the public through July.
The Bennett Valley Community Association has invited Zen center leaders to address its July 18 meeting at 8:15 p.m. at Bennett Valley Grange Hall, 4145 Grange Road in Santa Rosa.
The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission will also discuss the project at its July 24 meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Sonoma Police Department Community Room, 177 First Street West in Sonoma.
The county Board of Zoning Adjustments will ultimately decide whether to approve the permit.