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News: 08/01/2013

SVCAC advises yes on Zen Center project

Although Supervisor Susan Gorin’s office has received over 30 letters concerning proposed building at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, few people turned out for an airing of the project at the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC) in Sonoma on July 24. At the end of the discussion, the project was unanimously recommended for approval, though not without reservations.

A lot of discussion revolved around the miserable condition of Sonoma Mountain Road, which serves the remote homes, farms, vineyards and Zen Center high on Sonoma Valley’s west wall. Narrow and potholed, the road is so far down the county’s ‘to do’ list it may never see anything more than an occasional pothole filled for the next couple of decades.

The consensus of the SVCAC members is that while the Zen Center project shouldn’t be denied because of the county’s inability to fix the roads, the road’s condition is a valid consideration for moderating the size and weight of vehicles used for construction.

The Zen Center has existed on the site since the early 1970s, according to project manager Ron Dering who characterized the center as a “mom and pop” operation. The applicants, Jakusho Kwong-roshi and family, were at a Lake Tahoe retreat and not present. The current application is to build a new 4,000-square-foot meditation building, two six-person sleeping buildings of 1,200 and 1,400 square feet, host a mid-summer bazaar for 500 people to raise funds, and to host two 28-day retreats for up to 50 people twice a year, all over the next three to five years.

In the process, the Zen Center will tear down a number of illegal one- and two-person sleeping cabins, and essentially abandon the existing Zendo – a former barn – until some future date.

Commissioners raised concerns about the Center’s failure to comply with conditions set forth in a 1992 use permit approval. They were supposed to have permits for all the illegal buildings which they have clearly not yet done.

“The 21 years they have had to [comply] doesn’t give me a high level of confidence that the applicant ever lived up [to requirements] or will change their colors now,” Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Dick Fogg told the SVCAC members. “Some of these requirements go back to 1973.” Fogg faulted the county Permit Resource and Management Division for not enforcing its requirements when subsequent applications were made.

Neighbors Scott Fountain, Helen Bates, and Anthony Haas all supported the applicant, but Fountain expressed serious concerns over the construction traffic’s impact on the road surface and general noise levels. And while Bates supported the application, she would “love to see them comply with their permits.” Haas was also looking forward to the illegal cabins being removed.

Other commissioners suggested providing shuttle service for attendance at the large event to avoid parking overflow, and/or reducing the size of the event. Sean Bellach was primarily concerned that all buildings on the property be up to code to preserve public safety.

While the commissioners struggled for a half an hour to come up with an appropriate resolution to pass on the Planning Commission, they ultimately recommended Planning Commissioners do a thorough reading of the SVCAC minutes to understand all the issues discussed.


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