In Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma (2016) (previously published at 2 Cal.App.5th 1234)* the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that the County of Sonoma did not violate CEQA or the Planning and Zoning law when it adopted a subsequent mitigated negative declaration (MND) and approved a master use permit to expand the existing Ratna Ling Buddhist retreat center and printing facility.
The Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC) has operated a monastery and retreat center in Cazadero since 1975. In 2004, TNMC purchased an additional property, which it designated the Ratna Ling Retreat Center. Since 2004 Ratna Ling has undergone numerous changes and expansions, including growing from a one-printing-press facility to operating six printing presses. In response to applications from Ratna Ling, the county adopted and approved a series of mitigated negative declarations in 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 2014, Ratna Ling applied for a third multiple-use permit, and the county adopted a subsequent MND to the 2004 and 2008 MNDs, superseding the 2012 MND. The 2014 subsequent MND analyzed Ratna Ling’s application to make permanent four storage tents for its printing-press operation, and construct a new six-bedroom residence and up to eight tent cabins.
Coastal Hills Rural Preservation (CHRP) filed suit, arguing that the county should have prepared an EIR because the project greatly expands the printing-press operation. CHRP also argued that the approval violated the county’s general plan and zoning provisions. The trial court denied the petition, and the First District Court of Appeal affirmed.
CHRP argued that the project was inconsistent with the county’s general plan and zoning provisions in violation of Government Code section 65300. The site is designated for “resources and rural development” under the county’s general plan, which is intended to “protect lands used for timber, geothermal and mineral resource production and for natural resource conservation.” Contrary to CHRP’s argument that the printing press included “extraordinary levels of manufacturing productions …, massive storage structures and commercial Internet sales,” the court found that substantial evidence supported the county’s determination that the proposed uses were consistent with the land use regulations. The court explained that an agency’s determination regarding consistency with its own general plan is given great deference because “the body adopting a general plan has unique competence to interpret those policies when applying them to a proposed project.” There was no evidence in the record that the printing activities were undertaken for profit, the printing press use had been permitted since 2004, and the Board fully considered the county’s land use policies and the extent to which the project conforms to those policies.
The Court of Appeal also affirmed the trial court’s determination that the Board did not violate CEQA. Because the court was considering the county’s decision to prepare a subsequent MND where an MND had already been prepared under Public Resources Code section 21166, the court applied the substantial evidence test rather than the fair-argument standard of review. The court noted that the issue of the standard of review is currently before the California Supreme Court in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College Dist. (Sept. 26, 2013, A135892 [nonpub. opn.]), review granted Nov. 5, 2013, S214061).
The court found that substantial evidence supported the Board’s conclusion that any fire risks posed by the storage tents were adequately mitigated: the membranes covering the tents met applicable fire protection standards, there was 200 to 300 feet of defensible space around each tent, and a condition of approval required Ratna Ling to provide and maintain its own onsite fire engine. In addition, the court held that, regardless of whether the county should have included the tents in the baseline for its analysis, substantial evidence in the record indicated that the Board fully considered the potential impacts of the tents.
The court also ruled against arguments put forth by amicus curiae Friends of the Gualala River and Forest Unlimited. Contrary to those arguments, the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan was not effective until October 25, 2011, well after the storage tents were permitted and constructed, and therefore was inapplicable. In addition, the county did not improperly defer mitigation when it required Ratna Ling to coordinate with the fire district and comply with all fire-related conditions, because the mitigaton simply granted the county the right to impose new, stricter requirements if deemed necessary.
Finally, CHRP argued that the county engaged in impermissible spot zoning. The court explained that because the record and the relevant zoning regulations did not suggest that the authorized use for Ratna Ling is prohibited as to all other parcels in the same zone, this was not impermissible spot zoning in violation of Government Code section 65852.
*On November 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court granted review (210 Cal.Rptr.3d 14), depublished the decision, and transferred the case back to the First District, Division One, for reconsideration in light of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District et al. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 957–959. On May 16, 2016, the First District filed an unpublished decision in matter, available at 2017 WL 2118370.