Zen Center seeks peace – and a decision
Soto Zen teaches to be alive in every moment, but some moments seem to last an awfully long time.
For the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, the effort to obtain an amendment to its use permit, originally issued in 1989, is entering a third year. What Zen Center supporters hope to be a final hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustments took place yesterday, Jan. 7.
(NOTE: In action Thursday afternoon, the BZA voted 5-0 to approve the Zen Center's modification of their use permit, and gave them a two-part timeline - which extends final approval four years.)
“The sooner we can have an answer the sooner we can move forward,” said Cam Kwong, son of the founding couple and spokesman for the Zen Center in the county hearings. While the operations have not been affected as their current use permit is under review, Kwong said the process has not been without effect. “As far as a burden goes, it’s just the waiting, the waiting.”
The 80-acre Zen Center dates back to 1973, when Jakusho Kwong and his wife Laura (Shinko) Kwong moved from Marin County to establish the mountaintop retreat. Over the next two decades its programs and students grew, and in 1992 it was officially recognized as a church facility.
In exchange for county recognition, the Zen Center allocated 60 percent of its property to the county as an open-space easement – it’s prime scenic property, tucked behind Jack London State Historic Park – leaving about 15 acres for the meditation center. On this property were the main building used as a “Zendo” or meditation hall, plus several cabins in various states of conformity as overnight lodging.
Trying to get the buildings fully permitted proceeded by fits and starts, apparently being aggressively pursued by neither county nor the Kwongs. “For all this time period, they’ve always had inspectors up there, building inspectors, health inspectors and what not,” said attorney and planning consultant Ron Dering, working on behalf of the Zen Center.
“They’ve never had any notices of violation or anything like that. It’s just that they’ve been slow,” said Dering, referring to both the county and the center. “It’s never been really broke, but now there’s this effort to get it fixed.”
In 2013, the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center filed for amendment to its use permit, and as a first step made the case to the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission. There they confronted a number of questions including septic issues, the number of people attending special events, and the condition of the road leading to the center. Yet, at that time, the SVCAC recommended approval for the project by a 7 - 0 vote.
The center has also received similar approval from the Bennett Valley Design Review Commission, said Dering.
In November of 2014, the Zen Center finally got its first appearance before the Board of Zoning Adjustments, in a hearing that lasted over three hours and failed to reach a vote. The hearing this week was a continuation of the BZA’s oversight of the permitting process, and a vote was expected as we go to press.
One of the goals of the revised use permit, according to Dering, is to move the Zendo out of view of the road by building a new one behind a knoll. The current 3,840-square-foot meditation hall would be replaced by a larger 4,330-square-foot building, and most of the cabins that are currently used for overnight stays would be replaced by two new buildings, of only 1,500 square feet each, to hold six sleeping rooms each.