A man who built a California compound with a sustainability goal has been given notice by Marin County to move out, after years of his ignoring demands for permits.
LAGUNITAS, Calif. — To find David Lee Hoffman’s front door, take a right at the bell tower and proceed past the moat with a boat named Titanic II. Step — gingerly — through the stone tunnel, then follow the brick steps up to the Worm Palace and the breathtaking view the Solar Power Shower Tower.
You can’t miss it.
For the last 40 years, Hoffman, 67, an entrepreneur who specializes in rare aged tea leaves, has been building a Chinese- and Tibetan-inspired compound on a steep hill in this unincorporated hippie holdover in western Marin County where the general store has a community piano and sells clothing “made with peace and love.”
The village has long prided itself on its pristine beauty and live-and-let-live attitude. But that was before the bitter dispute that pitted Hoffman, with his unconventional techniques for living in a what he calls a sustainable way, against county code enforcers whose demands for permits he has repeatedly ignored.
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The case, which is now in the hands of a state administrative judge, has riven his neighbors in the wooded glen they share. Until recently, the loudest voices to be heard had been only the native frogs, whose cacophony Hoffman can rouse at will by yelling “Ribet!” into the papyrus plants of his upper moat.
Hoffman, who has been called the Indiana Jones of tea, may be the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. But Marin County has numerous issues with the 30 or so structures he has dreamt up and built over the years. Chief among its concerns is his method of disposing and recycling waste. It is called vermicomposting, in which colonies of worms, microorganismsand carbon-rich leaves turn waste into humus. Water from the shower and kitchen sink flow into the upper moat, along with food scraps digested in Hoffman’s copper-shingled Taj Mahal for worms. The resulting “gray water” passes through filters before being piped into the garden to nurture Peruvian potatoes, French sorrel and other vegetables.
Hoffman and his wife, Ratchanee Chaikamwung, who is known as Bee and is from Thailand, forgo soap, washing dishes with a mix of wood ash and oyster shells. In place of a conventional toilet, they use self-contained chambers with a worm-composting system (there is a standard flush toilet for skittish visitors). Compost privies, with or without worms, are not allowed in Marin County.
The possibility of the moats overflowing into a nearby salmon creek is yet another concern. “We have given David notice many times about requiring construction permits,” said Debbi Poiani, the county’s senior code-enforcement specialist.
“But even through red tags, he’s just continued on his merry way,” she added, referring to the code violation stickers.
Hoffman’s pursuit of handmade teas and artisanal growers in remote regions of China was the subject of a 2007 documentary, “All in This Tea,” by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, filmmakers who are documenting the rise of his compound, which he calls the Last Resort. Complete with a cave for aging Pu-erh leaves in long bamboo containers and a tea house, it is part Himalayan kingdom, part Dogpatch rife with construction debris.
“I wanted to show that there are distinctive nonpolluting ways to live on the planet,” Hoffman explained over tea and chapatis handmade from his heirloom wheat. “In my mind, I thought I could demonstrate to the county that these systems work.”
The county remains unconvinced: it gave the couple notice to “cease occupancy” until an approved septic system is installed and the buildings, walls and moats are brought up to code. In addition, Hoffman faces roughly $200,000 in fines for building without permits and for running the Phoenix Collection, his latest tea business, on the premises.
To his supporters, Hoffman’s improvisational architecture is a woodsy Watts Towers, the mosaic-encrusted concrete and steel cultural landmark in Los Angeles.
Like George Lucas and the Grateful Dead, Hoffman “helps to put Marin on the map as a place of unique creativity and originality,” argued a neighbor, Vernon Castle, in a letter to the county (although Lucas is not without his own problem, having just scratched a plan to build a major digital technology complex in West Marin after intense opposition).
The son of a wallpaper manufacturer entrepreneur, Hoffman grew up in Oakland and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He spent a decade backpacking through Tibet, Nepal and elsewhere in Asia before settling in Marin in 1973. He started a business based on a process he invented for cleaning ancient textiles using sound vibrations. “I was cleaning pieces that were worth more than my house,” he said. “Tea was easy and quiet.”
But his fanatical construction project reflects a soft-spoken intensity. To build the tea house roof, for instance, Hoffman, who is afraid of heights, recruited former Cirque du Soleil performers to teach him how to suspend safely in midair.
He insists that he thought he had the county’s unofficial blessing. “I did what I felt was right,” he said. He added, “My love of the planet is greater than my fear of the law.”
The travails of Hoffman began when a neighbor accused him of chopping down trees and building over the property line. The neighbor, Chuck Ford, said he agreed to sell the land to Hoffman for $4,000 — money he says he has yet to receive. A legal dispute played out over 17 years. “I think he honestly felt that because he wanted our property, it was rightfully his,” Ford said in an email. “There’s an extraordinary amount of self-centeredness in all this.”
Sim Van der Ryn, a specialist in sustainable architecture who is consulting with Hoffman, said the only way to bring the buildings into compliance would be to tear everything down.