On August 31, 2016, the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed a trial court decision denying a petition for writ of mandate filed by a citizens group challenging the third in a series of master use permits for a Buddhist retreat center that has operated in the County of Sonoma since the mid-1970s. Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2016) (Case No. A145573) addresses the group’s allegations that the County violated CEQA by approving the permit without an EIR, that the permit violates federal and state constitutional provisions against the establishment of religion, that the permit is inconsistent with the County’s general plan and zoning policies, and that the permit constitutes spot zoning. My partner, Art Coon, wrote about the CEQA issues on his blog, CEQA Developments, here.

The approximately 120-acre Ratna Ling Retreat Center site has a Resources and Rural Development (“RRD”) designation under the County’s general plan. The purpose of the RRD designation is to “protect lands used for timber, geothermal and mineral resource production and for natural resource conservation.” The RRD designation is also intended, in part, to guard against intensive development in fire and flood prone areas and to protect County residents from proliferation of growth in areas where there are inadequate public services and infrastructure. The RRD designation expressly allows “[l]odging, campgrounds, and similar recreational and visitor serving uses,” provided they are not inconsistent with the resource purposes of the area.

The County approved two other master use permits in, 1983 and 2004. Among other things, those permits authorized a monastery and retreat as a primary use of the property. In addition, the 2004 permit allowed an 18,750 square foot building and printing press with total production capacity of nearly 100,000 books per year. The facility prints Buddhist texts in the Tibetan language for shipment to Asia and free distribution to Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay practitioners whose libraries have been destroyed by Chinese authorities. In 2006, Ratna Ling added five additional presses in the same building.

The County approved the third master use permit in 2014, authorizing several changes to the existing facility. Among other things, the 2014 master use permit made permanent four storage structures that were approved in 2008, with a combined square footage of nearly 40,000 square feet, to house the religious texts produced in the printing facility, and approved a seasonal campground and five-bedroom house as additions to the retreat. In approving the 2014 permit the Board of Supervisors found that the printing facility is an accessory use because it continues to be related to, subordinate to, and appurtenant to, the primary retreat use. The Board also found that the uses sought under the 2014 master use permit are clarifications and expansions of the previously approved uses already determined to be consistent with the general plan, that the project would not involve the loss of timber, and it would not interfere with geothermal resource production.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation’s challenge focused primarily on the printing facility and storage, arguing that the project greatly expands the printing press operation in a rural area. The group alleged that the County’s continued categorization of the retreat as “visitor-serving” is unsupported by substantial evidence. The group claimed that the Board’s approval “sanctions rampant commercial activity already taking place” and allows “massive storage structures and commercial Internet sales.”

The County responded that there is no evidence in the record that the printing activities are undertaken for profit. The undisputed evidence is that 89 percent of Ratna Ling’s total revenue is generated by its retreat use, with 11 percent coming from the printing press use. Ninety-eight percent of its total printing output is given away for free. Two percent of this output is used to produce religious texts in English, which are offered for sale. The revenue generated by these sales is then used to support the production of more religious texts. Notably, Coastal Hills Rural Preservation did not argue that the retreat use itself is a commercial activity, even though that use generates six times more income per year for Ratna Ling than the printing use.

In analyzing Coastal Hills Rural Preservation’s general plan consistency claims, the Court of Appeal highlighted the long line of cases establishing the deferential standard of review that applies when reviewing a local agency’s decision for consistency with its own general plan. Agencies are given broad discretion, particularly when considering general plan policies that reflect competing interests. The role of a reviewing court is simply to decide whether the agency officials considered the applicable policies and the extent to which the proposed project conforms with those policies. The agency’s decision will be upheld so long as it is not arbitrary, capricious, unsupported, or procedurally unfair. The court will not reweigh conflicting evidence and will not substitute its views for that of the legislative body. Thus, the court will resolve reasonable doubts in favor of the administrative decision.

The Court of Appeal thus recognized that while Ratna Ling’s printing activities have intensified over time, the County did not abuse its discretion in categorizing the printing use as accessory to the primary retreat center use. The Court also noted that the administrative record shows that the Board fully considered the “industrial” aspects of Ratna Ling’s printing operation and its potential impacts to fire safety.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation also asserted that the County’s approval of the “massive industrial storage operation and drastic print facility expansion” violated federal and state constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of religion. The Court noted, however, that the issue was not ripe for consideration because the group failed to raise the issue before the Board and, further, that the group disclaimed the argument in its opening brief. The Court noted that a new constitutional issue may be raised on appeal if it involves a pure question of law that is absolutely necessary to the disposition of this appeal and concerns a matter of public interest based on undisputed facts, but held that the underlying facts here are complex and disputed.

Finally, Coastal Hills Rural Preservation argued that the County engaged in illegal spot zoning when it approved the project. Spot zoning occurs when an agency allows more or less restrictive zoning for a parcel, or “island,” than surrounding parcels. Although the group also failed to raise this issue in the administrative proceeding and in the trial court, the Court of Appeal noted that Government Code section 65852 provides that “All such [zoning] regulations shall be uniform for each class or kind of building or use of land throughout each zone, but the regulation in one type of zone may differ from those in other types of zones.” Nothing in the record or in the relevant zoning regulations suggests that the use the County has authorized with respect to Ratna Ling is prohibited as to all other parcels in the same zone. In addition, the County’s 2014 master use permit approval did not include a change in zoning.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation highlights the substantial latitude local agencies have to interpret and apply land use policies to particular development projects, particularly where the record demonstrates that the legislative body approving the project fully considered the applicable policies and the extent to which the project conforms to those policies. And even though the printing press expansion in this case was controversial, under the deferential standard that governs judicial review the Court would not reweigh conflicting evidence nor substitute its views for those of the Board.