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Zen Center seeks peace – and a decision

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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.

Two existing cabins on the property would be retained, allowing for a maximum occupancy of 28 persons. While this is sufficient for the Center’s frequent silent meditation retreats and classes, two annual events can spike attendance to several hundred people. A 120-car lot is being built on the property to eliminate any off-site parking, one issue that has posed a problem for neighbors on the little-trafficked but neglected Sonoma Mountain Road.

The road was recently selected by public poll on the Press Democrat website as the worst road in Sonoma County, but attorney and planning consultant Dering points out that “road concerns are a county-wide issue and not an individual problem.”

But the road is one of the concerns the facility must address to overcome the objections of some neighbors, who contend it’s unable to bear any more traffic than it currently suffers.

And some members of the Board of Zoning Adjustments, specifically Dick Fogg representing the 1st District, suggested that the Zen Center should limit events to 200 people, provide vehicles to bus people from the bottom of the hill, and “make a small dollar application to fix roads” according to the minutes from November’s BZA meeting.

If their application for modifying the existing use permit is approved, the Zen Center is willing to suspend its annual “bazaar” in September, said Dering, described as a community fundraising event for up to 500 people with crafts, performance and meditation, but without outdoor amplified music or food service.

There is also the Buddha’s Birthday celebration in April, with up to 200 people in attendance, again with no amplified music or food service. The birthday celebration is preceded by a three-day silent retreat. Similar retreats are held monthly around the year, and there are two month-long retreats for up to 50 people

The head of the center is its founder Jakusho Kwong – who was born William Kwong in Santa Rosa in 1935, and in 1959 began studying Zen with the celebrated Zen teacher (or “roshi”) Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Kwong is one of only nine acknowledged Soto Zen roshis in the West. “Zen,” he says, “is the aliveness we bring to each moment.”

According to the website smzc.net, the facility was started to “continues the Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi and to make everyday Zen available to people in Sonoma County.”

Meanwhile, the waiting continues. “The operation itself has been there a long time, so nothing’s changed there,” said Cam Kwong. “But once we have a decision, then we have to move. That’s really what it is. It just takes a long time.” Following Thursday’s vote, said Dering, “Then you go to the next square” – get approval from the Design Review Commission, then apply for building permits, then enter the construction phase. “It’s probably going to take 24 months, maybe a little longer,” said Dering. “That’s just how long it takes.”

But if there’s one thing Zen teaches, it’s patience.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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