Resolution in sight for Lagunitas tea purveyor

By Anna Guth | POINT REYES LIGHT

The date has been set for a mandatory settlement conference between the county and David Lee Hoffman, the Lagunitas resident who for years has defended the dozens of unpermitted structures on his property despite mounting fines. In superior court this month, Judge Paul Haakenson put the settlement discussion on the calendar for March 12, a meeting he hopes will result in a final resolution. The conference will include county counsel, the receiver to whom the judge gave control over the property in 2015, a representative from the Bank of America—which has a lien on the property—and members of the Lagunitas Project, a nonprofit that has been fundraising for months and hopes to eventually take ownership of the property. Mr. Hoffman faces a nearly $1 million tab on his property taxes in penalties and fees, alongside the estimated cost of $2.2 million to bring his property into compliance. Paul Seaton, the executive director of the Lagunitas Project, said he hopes for $90,000 in grant monies next year. With support from groups like the Marin chapter of the Sierra Club, the project envisions using Mr. Hoffman’s property as a model of sustainable systems. Though Mr. Hoffman and the county have agreed to apply the more lenient historic building code to the property—dubbed The Last Resort—the settlement will iron out the details. For example, Mr. Seaton hopes the county will agree to preserve the extensive and unique gray water system, which filters and recycles water, and a black water system that composts human waste. In a letter sent in August, the chair of the local Sierra Club chapter, Judy Schriebman, wrote that Mr. Hoffman has demonstrated a “nearly closed-loop cycle for waste treatment and food production, on a very small property. This is an extraordinarily powerful and unique working example of sustainability.” At the hearing last Friday, Judge Haakenson encouraged Mr. Hoffman not to stall the settlement in any way, considering the case has dragged on for more than a decade and that the alternative to an agreement was bulldozing. “What I often tell people embroiled in litigation is to look forward, not backwards, and not to pose the problem but rather the solution. That’s what we are going to work on in the next 90 days,” he said.

 

Lagunitas tea purveyor reports progress in county settlement talks

By Anna Guth | POINT REYES LIGHT

Settlement discussions are underway between Marin County and David Lee Hoffman, the Lagunitas resident who faces mounting fines in his fight to preserve dozens of unpermitted structures on his property. At a hearing last Friday, both parties reported to Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson that their negotiations over the past three months had been productive, though they have yet to reach an agreement. The court will reconvene in 90 days to hear their progress.

Paul Seaton, a San Rafael attorney who is serving as the executive director for the Lagunitas Project, updated Judge Haakenson on Friday that the group has more than $90,000 in promised donations. Mr. Seaton is working with the receiver—who has been in control of Mr. Hoffman’s property since 2015—and county counsel Brian Case to determine how to best bring the 36 structures and other features on the property into compliance with county code.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hoffman, who dismissed his lawyers earlier this year to take matters into his own hands, has been tackling the financial aspect of the settlement with Mr. Case. Transferring ownership of the property to the nonprofit will be a part of the settlement. Thanks to Mr. Seaton’s advocacy, the Marin chapter of the Sierra Club penned a letter to the judge this month in support of preserving the property, which it wrote was a model of sustainability.

Mr. Hoffman and his many supporters have long advocated for the county to apply a more lenient code, the California Historic Building Code, to the property, which they argue has architectural and historical significance. The Sierra Club’s letter favored the application of this code; doing so could involve the reinstatement of the Marin County Architectural Commission’s deci-sion from 2016 that the site is historically important. (The status of that designation is under dispute.)

“While the land use of the Last Resort property is unconventional, we acknowledge that unconventional approaches will be needed in order to over-come the global environmental challenges facing humanity,” wrote Judy Schriebman, chair of the Marin Group Sierra Club. “Under normal circumstances, the Sierra Club would be inclined to challenge property use that involved over-building. In this case, whatever its origins, we now feel there are vitally important overriding considerations in favor of preservation.”

Ms. Schriebman described the two overriding considerations, including that Mr. Hoffman has demonstrated a “nearly closed-loop cycle for waste treatment and food production, on a very small property. This is an extraordinarily powerful and unique working example of sustainability.” Second, Mr. Hoffman has treated the property “as a community resource, opening [it] to tours by international land-use designers, individuals interested in small-scale sustainable land use, and even local school field trips, as well as offering a meeting space.”

Judge Haakenson acknowledged the letter on Friday and emphasized that he has not taken the many opportunities that have come before him to order the property to be demolished. Mr. Hoffman, who now is well accustomed to speaking on his own in court despite his trouble hearing, raised an issue concerning a mysterious fee charged by the Bank of America during his settlement discussions. Judge Haakenson, speaking to a Bank of America representative who phoned in to the hearing, more or less resolved the issue, which proved to be a previous fine rather than a new penalty. The judge encouraged Mr. Hoffman to stay positive. “Step away from the ledge and do not put a damper on the negotiations,” the judge advised. “Your highest and best hope is to negotiate. and to bring the property in compliance with the law.”

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OPINION Marin Voice: Commercial developers are threatening Lagunitas’ Last Resort

David Lee Hoffman pours cups of tea he brewed for visitors over an open fire on Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in Lagunitas. He has been building exotic, Tibetan and Chinese inspired structures on his Lagunitas land for 40 years without permits from Marin County. He now faces $460,000 in fines and a court order to tear everything down. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

 

By MARI SEREBROV | August 19, 2019 at 10:33 am

An outgrowth of the back-to-the-earth movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Last Resort in Lagunitas is a testament to one man’s ingenuity and his dream of developing a practical, low-cost ecological system that could serve as a demonstration project for his community.

Now, nearly 50 years after David Lee Hoffman began turning his two acres of hillside into an artistic environmental model of living sustainably, Marin County officials are threatening to destroy everything he’s created by reneging on old agreements and assessing penalties approaching $1 million. That includes hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate off-site environmental damage that has nothing to do with the Last Resort.

What could be lost, if the county doesn’t back down in court later this month, is a unique integrated bio-management system that uses vermiculture, composting and healthy gray water processes to produce a natural fertilizer that enriches the soil for growing high-grade organic food. Also at stake are more than 35 buildings that the Marin County Architectural Commission has cited for their architectural significance.

So what is the Last Resort?

“It’s an important and significant example of East-West folk art,” according to sustainable architect Sim Van der Ryn, who was appointed California State Architect by former governor Jerry Brown and is on the architecture faculty at the University of California at Berkeley.

Others consider it a quintessential living history – a prime example of the do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land, Mother Earth ethos of the 1960s put into practice.

For Hoffman, the Last Resort is his home. It embodies three principles: water is precious, soil is sacred and human waste is a resource. Following those principles, Hoffman, who has an engineering and physics background, designed all the systems at the Last Resort to be completely isolated and self-contained so there is no chance of polluting the environment.

Considered a leading global authority on pu-erh teas, Hoffman is known in the tea world for introducing and popularizing fine handcrafted artisanal teas to the West. With his extensive background in vermiculture and soil fertility, Hoffman worked with China’s prestigious National Tea Research Institute, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Agriculture to help them implement organic and sustainable tea-farming practices.

Hoffman has argued that the buildings, including the original house that was built in the 1920s, should be held to the historical building code. He admits that as he developed his compound, he didn’t bother with building permits. Back in the 1970s, no one in that part of the county did. “We were pretty much left alone,” Hoffman said. Even when the county started handing him red tags years later for not having a permit, there was a tacit agreement that everything was OK.

That all changed about 10 years ago when a new generation of building inspectors came into county government. The county initially agreed to settle the permit violations for $60,000 but then reneged on that offer, Hoffman said. Its latest settlement offer was $700,000 in penalties.

The costs escalated when a judge appointed a receiver to determine the property needs. With Hoffman expected to pay for the receiver’s time and all expenses, the receiver has called in multiple experts and agencies to identify violations that “could” be occurring at the Last Resort. Hoffman’s struggle to preserve his vision “got more complex and more convoluted with all these agencies,” he said.

Hoping to pass the ecological lessons he’s learned to future generations, Hoffman is working with the Lagunitas Project to preserve the Last Resort property in a Public Benefit Trust.

“I set out 46 years ago to create a living model of sustainability. I succeeded,” Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, commercial developers are circling.

The public is welcome to attend the case management conference in Marin Superiour Court at the Civic Center in San Rafael, 9 a.m. on Friday. Go to TheLagunitasProject.org for more information.

Mari Serebrov, who lives in Arkansas, is an award-winning journalist and author. She originally wrote this article for TheLagunitasProject.org.

 

Marin Voice: Commercial developers are threatening Lagunitas’ Last Resort

Point Reyes Light News Article, June 20, 2019

Marin Independent Journal News Article – June 9th, 2019

Marin judge grants ‘Last Resort’ compound another temporary reprieve

Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson warned, however, that this might indeed be Hoffman’s last resort.

Hoffman, who gained notoriety as an importer of exotic teas, has been battling with Marin County for many years over some 36 buildings he constructed without proper permits on his property at 2 Alta Ave. and 230 Cintura Ave.

Hoffman settled on the property in 1973 and modified existing cabin-style residences that had been built in the early 1900s. He also added storage buildings, ponds, retaining walls and ornamental structures — including a full-size replica of a fishing boat suspended in a pond of rainwater — all without permits.

“It is a work of art; it is my life’s work,” Hoffman, who represented himself in court Friday, told Haakenson.

County health inspectors were not impressed, however, by Hoffman’s unpermitted outdoor composting toilet or his kitchen composting system that used worms and a series of open-air moats. They said the moats were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the toilet threatened the aquifer and nearby streams with contamination from sewage.

Hoffman owes the county close to $1 million in unpaid taxes, fees and penalties, and the cost of retrofitting the structures to bring them into compliance with county code has been estimated at $2.2 million.

In 2015, Haakenson appointed a receiver to manage the property and make the necessary changes, including, if needed, demolishing the unpermitted structures and selling the property to recoup associated costs.

On Friday, Haakenson told Hoffman that a day of reckoning is swiftly approaching. He gave Hoffman 60 days to talk with the county about the possibility of dismissing the receiver and mapping out a plan for paying the money owed and making the necessary changes to make the structures legal.

Haakenson said no matter how sympathetic he might be to Hoffman’s plight he can’t ignore the outstanding violations.

“Unfortunately, this robe doesn’t give me that kind of power,” Haakenson said.

There is, however, a ray of hope for the Last Resort. Last fall, a group of Hoffman’s supporters created the Lagunitas Project, a nonprofit whose main mission is to preserve the Last Resort by transferring ownership of the property to a charitable trust. The Lagunitas Project would serve as trustee.

“We would hope the receiver would step down once the penalties and fees are resolved and the property goes into the trust,” said Paul Seaton, the Lagunitas Project’s executive director.

Seaton said the Lagunitas Project has raised $100,000 so far.

Deputy County Counsel Brian Case told Haakenson on Friday that the county is willing to discuss the possibility of dismissing the receiver and once again working directly with Hoffman on creating a plan to bring the property into compliance.

Haakenson told Hoffman he should appreciate the county’s generous offer to consider turning back the clock.

“If I were you, I’d by crying out in joy,” Haakenson told him.

Haakenson told Hoffman he should also be grateful for the efforts of the receiver, Eric Beatty, who has secured a tentative agreement with federal, state and local regulatory agencies to accept off-site mitigation, instead or requiring him to move his structures out of Cintura and Alta creeks.

To demonstrate that he is serious about negotiating, Hoffman took what he said was $60,000 in cash out of his briefcase and put it on the table in front of him. Hoffman said he has already spent half a million dollars on attorney fees.

Hoffman is hoping that Marin County will accept his bid to apply California Historical Building Code rules to his structures instead of the county’s more stringent building code. Last year, Haakenson rejected a request to validate the Marin County Architectural Commission’s determination in 2016 that all 36 of the Last Resort’s structures have “architectural significance.”

In his tentative ruling, Haakenson wrote that he was not opposed to allowing the restoration of the property under the less onerous regulatory requirements, but the county would have to sign off on such a plan.

While Case said the county is open to discussion of the matter, he said Hoffman has not presented it with any substantive proposal.

Case noted that in a June 7 court filing, the receiver, Beatty, wrote that “The Lagunitas Project does include any discussion of restoration of the altered watercourses across the properties or preservation of the water retention basins or retaining walls at the properties.”

Beatty also wrote in the filing that “The Lagunitas Project provides no offer of funding to the receivership estate for the receiver to complete any of the work needed to move forward with a plan of rehabilitation for any structures or improvements.”

He added, “It is not financially feasible for the receiver to undertake the complicated assessment and documentation process unless the delinquent property taxes are paid in full and the receivership estate is supplied with at least $425,000 in immediate funding.”

Marin Independent Journal Newspaper Article – October 3, 2018

Lagunitas’ exotic Last Resort seeks reprieve from auction block

By Richard Halstead
(link)

It appears the final chapter has not yet been written for David Lee Hoffman’s so-called “The Last Resort,” a Tibetan-style experiment in sustainable living in Lagunitas.

Marin Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson on Friday rejected a request from a receiver — whom he appointed in 2015 to bring Hoffman’s funky compound into compliance with the law — for permission to tear down two buildings at the site.

Haakenson also rejected a request by Hoffman’s attorney to validate the Marin County Architectural Commission’s determination in 2016 that all 36 of The Last Resort’s structures have “architectural significance.” Under state law, such a designation would mean that the buildings would be subject to the California Historical Building Code, which is less stringent than the county’s building code.

Instead, Haakenson directed the receiver, Eric Beatty, and Hoffman to meet and confer in an attempt to reach agreement on which of The Last Resorts’ structures are architecturally significant and thus should be evaluated under the Historical Building Code.

After settling on the property at 2 Alta Ave. and 230 Cintura Ave. in 1973, Hoffman, an importer of exotic teas, modified existing cabin-style residences that had been built in the early 1900s and made a number of other improvements. He added storage buildings, ponds, retaining walls and ornamental structures — including a full-size replica of a fishing boat suspended in a pond of rainwater — all without permits.

The style of his building was influenced by a decade Hoffman spent backpacking through Tibet, Nepal and elsewhere in Asia.

County health inspectors were not impressed, however, by Hoffman’s unpermitted outdoor composting toilet or kitchen composting system that utilized worms and a series of open-air moats. They said the moats were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the toilet threatened the aquifer and nearby streams with contamination from sewage.

“There is no urgent need to deal with those buildings; they’re not unsafe,” Hoffman’s attorney, Peter Prows, said after the hearing.

Prows said the building of most concern should be Hoffman’s tea house, which he said is also the compound’s biggest and most architecturally significant structure.

“It’s built into and off the side of a hillside,” Prows said, “and the concern is if there is an earthquake it will just come tumbling down and people might get hurt. If you’re actually trying to solve a real problem like addressing things that are unsafe, let’s start there.”

In his filing, Prows stated that Hoffman has commissioned a plan from a San Anselmo architect, Adam Posard, to make The Last Resort safe, while preserving its historic structures, consistent with the Historical Building Code. He asserted that Posard’s plan should be made the basis for the receiver’s renovation of The Last Resort.

In his tentative ruling, Haakenson wrote, “The court is not opposed to modification of its 2015 order, and allowing the restoration of the property to occur under the less onerous regulatory requirements of the Historical Building Code, should the property be designated accordingly.”

But Haakenson also stated that any restoration plan that rests upon application of the Historical Building Code “will require the county to accept this designation.”

“It is not for the court to direct the county to apply the Historical Building Code in permitting construction, or approving any construction or restoration,” Haakenson wrote.

Haakenson noted in the ruling that Hoffman has twice before ignored court orders to bring his property into compliance with the law.

The Last Resorts’ application to the Marin County Architectural Commission in 2016 was supported by three experts. Sim Van der Ryn, former California state architect, lauded the “advanced ecological design” of the compound, comparing it favorably to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Mark Hulbert, a licensed conservation architect and cultural resources consultant, compared The Last Resort’s historical importance to that of the Marin County Civic Center. And Jo Farb Hernandez, director of SPACES, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of historically significant art spaces, wrote that “there could be no better example of a site worthy of preservation.”

Hoffman still faces an uphill battle, however, to preserve his ecological Shangri-La.

A previous ruling against him for ignoring building codes has left him saddled with more than $226,000 in fines. After the receiver was appointed in 2015, the court granted Beatty a $93,000 lien to cover the cost of carrying out the order. On Friday, Haakenson granted the receiver’s request for an additional $205,000 lien.

According to Beatty’s filing for Friday’s hearing, this lien “may not be extended unless the more than $385,000 in delinquent property tax assessments from 2014 are paid by Mr. Hoffman.”

Beatty, who could not be reached for comment, states in the filing that if the tax assessments aren’t paid, all of The Last Resorts’ properties could be sold at auction in 2019.

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article – October 4, 2018

Lagunitas tea seller denied ask, gains time

(link)

Surrounded by more than a dozen friends and neighbors in a hot courtroom last Friday, tea purveyor and longtime Lagunitas resident David Lee Hoffman strained in his seat to take in the proceedings but soon retreated to the back, where he resigned to not being able to hear—and resumed his usual serene expression.

In trouble with the county over decades of unpermitted building, Mr. Hoffman, 74, filed a motion in Marin Superior Court in August in defense of the continued applicability of the Marin County Architectural Commission’s 2016 designation of architectural significance for his property—a fighting argument for the preservation of his dozens of structures.

Adding urgency to his case, the county can auction off the property next year should he fail to pay outstanding taxes and penalties, which amount to over $800,000.

But at Friday’s hearing, Judge Paul Haakenson took guidance from county counsel Brian Case, who laid out the county’s position that the 2016 architectural significance designation was invalid. In the end, he finalized a tentative ruling that denied Mr. Hoffman’s motion, though he added some sympathetic orders.

Mr. Case explained that the architectural commission’s designation of significance was void because a court-appointed receiver who has been in control of the property since 2015 never approved it. Mr. Case provided a letter from April 2016, dated a few weeks after the commission made its determination, from the deputy director of the Building and Safety division as evidence of a timely invalidation.

Yet in a strange contradiction, Mr. Case also said the county was in favor of the receiver considering the architectural and cultural significance of Mr. Hoffman’s property, though only at his discretion and “at the appropriate time.”

For his part, the receiver, Southern California attorney Paul Beatty, deferred to the judge for direction, expressing concern about how he might both fulfill his duties and recognize the site’s architectural significance. Mr. Beatty said that in 2015 Judge Haakenson ordered him to bring the property into compliance with all state and local codes—including the state’s residential, plumbing and electrical codes—and to correct its deficiencies and violations, including by demolition.

Of particular concern to him was that unpermitted structures interfere with Alta and Cintura Creek watercourses, a violation of county code. “With respect to this much larger issue, the receiver is given to wonder: is Mr. Hoffman suggesting that the county is required to issue permits… without any restoration work being performed because a designated-architecturally-significant structure is in the way?” he wrote in a filing to the court on Sept. 28.

In his final ruling, Judge Haakenson made a few key concessions. He ordered Mr. Beatty to meet and confer with all involved parties about the possibility of reapplying to the architectural commission to consider significance on a structure-by-structure basis. Practically speaking, a designation of significance allows a structure to comply with the state’s historic building code. That code is more lenient than the building code, which has thousands of pages of prescriptive technical requirements.

Softening further, Judge Haakenson told Mr. Beatty to temporarily postpone the demolition of two structures that encroach on an adjacent public road, pending the conversation among concerned parties.

According to Judge Haakenson, this was the best he could do for Mr. Hoffman, given the county’s position. “Regardless of Marin Architectural Commission’s decision, the county seemingly is articulating that it will not approve permits, or sign off on legal compliance of any final construction, unless the structures comply with the Marin County Code, and unless the many other legal deficiencies are remedied,” he wrote in his tentative ruling. “The court is powerless to direct the county how to issue permits or approve the future construction and development. Thus, absent county agreement to ignore codes and regulations already found to exist, and apply only the Historical Building Code, it would amount to a waste of time and resources to direct the receiver to apply the Historical Building Code to guide his restoration efforts.”

This argument was perplexing to Peter Prows, Mr. Hoffman’s attorney, who not only argued that the architectural commission’s designation was never formally appealed and invalidated but also that the judge had the authority to weigh in on the matter.

“What are we doing here? We are trying to solve a problem. We have put forward a plan that was very expensive, as Your Honor can imagine, to try to make this property safe,” Mr. Prows said, referencing plans Mr. Hoffman commissioned from a San Anselmo architectural firm that delineate how the property might be brought into compliance with the historic building code.

Mr. Prows went on, “We can go down a path of finding issues that aren’t related to safety and are technical violations of this or that, and we can spend a lot of money and a lot of time and get a lot of liens on this property until Mr. Hoffman is run out of his home. Or, we can actually solve a problem—and that’s what we are trying to do.”

But Judge Haakenson was steadfast. The receiver will report back to him again in March.

After the hearing, Mr. Hoffman and his crowd of supporters convened outside the courthouse, assessing whether it had been a loss or a win. The general consensus: at least there was more time.

Mr. Hoffman, who is suffering from Lyme disease and has turned much of his attention toward his health, told the Light that he is trying to keep his stress minimal.

He continues to be supported by his community in the San Geronimo Valley and beyond. On Friday, San Francisco cinematographer A.J. Marson was documenting the most recent chapter of Mr. Hoffman’s story, and a neighbor recently took up the task of forming a nonprofit that may be able to better fund and take care of the property, dubbed the Last Resort.

John Torrey, a neighbor who partnered with Mr. Hoffman in 2016 to apply for the designation of architectural significance, said he thought the decisions at the county level were political in nature. He put pressure on District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni to weigh in.

“He would be a hero to the community if he did that,” Mr. Torrey said.

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article – August 15, 2018

Lagunitas tea seller hopes for historic building code

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article 11/30/17

Lagunitas man given time to save structures

By Anna Guth
11/30/2017

(PDF here)

Amid fierce community support for tea purveyor David Lee Hoffman and his legendary Lagunitas property, a superior court judge is moving cautiously to address the problems posed by its dozens of unpermitted structures.

In a hearing late last month, Judge Paul Haakenson largely overruled the lawyer he appointed to help bring the property up to code, postponing any demolition and allowing Mr. Hoffman continued access to much of his property—with the exception of his teahouse, which will be roped off for the time being.

The property, which Mr. Hoffman calls “The Last Resort” and built as a model for sustainable living, features many Asian-inspired creations stemming from Mr. Hoffman’s trips to China to buy his choice pu-erh tea. But with its roughly 30 unpermitted structures and illegal gray and black water systems, the property has troubled the county for  decades.

Judge Haakenson took over the case after Mr. Hoffman refused to comply with a 2012 court order that both levied $226,672 in fines and mandated that he demolish all the illegal structures on the property at his own cost. In 2015, using a different tactic, Judge Haakenson placed the property under the control of a receiver tasked with bringing the property into compliance.

In the meantime, though Mr. Hoffman moved much of his tea business, the Phoenix Collection, to a brick-and-mortar shop in Lagunitas, he has continued to live and work—and, despite a court mandate, build—on the property. His fines have continued to mount: he has roughly $350,000 pending on his property tax bill, reflecting the court’s administrative penalties, as well as a $93,000 lien on the property from Bank of America to cover the costs of the receiver’s work.

At a hearing on Nov. 17, the receiver, attorney Paul Beatty, after two years spent consulting numerous federal permitting agencies and consultants, made his first report on the measures he wanted Mr. Hoffman to take to address “immediate health and safety concerns.” These included demolishing two buildings that encroach on Alta Avenue and roping off access to a variety of others—including Mr. Hoffman’s residence, storage shed, teahouse and workshop. He also proposed prohibiting Mr. Hoffman from having guests on the property.

Yet Judge Haakenson, responding to requests voiced by Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer, Paul Smith, settled on an overall less impactful ruling—though he also made clear that his patience was wearing thin. “At some point this court has to say enough is enough,” he warned.

“At some point we might be compelled to put a gate around the property, make Mr. Hoffman leave, let Mr. Beatty do his work.” Under the tentative ruling, a large swath of one of Mr. Hoffman’s two adjoining parcels will be roped off to remediate safety hazards. Mr. Hoffman will maintain access to his residence, workshop, storage shed and garden.

During the hearing, Mr. Smith, the attorney, effectively argued that the buildings themselves were not safety hazards, and that more precise fencing around elements like a retaining pond and a water feature could allow Mr. Hoffman to continue to live and work on the property.

Yet the judge did ultimately prohibit Mr. Hoffman’s access to his teahouse—a roughly 600-square-foot building that serves as a ceremonial convening place for tea drinking—as it was deemed structurally unsound.

Additionally, rather than forcing him to demolish the two structures— a garage and a storage building—flagged by Mr. Beatty, Judge Haakenson allowed Mr. Hoffman the opportunity to provide plans and obtain the necessary permits to modify the structures so as to comply with the required setbacks. The receiver was instructed to oversee those modifications.

The judge was also amenable to Mr. Hoffman’s request to hire his own consultants to evaluate all of the structures together—as opposed to the receiver’s piecemeal approach—and prepare a comprehensive master plan to bring the property up to code. He clarified, however, that though Mr. Beatty could evaluate this plan once it was finished, the effort was not part of a formal court order and would not supersede the receiver’s continued task of evaluating the property.

Lastly, Judge Haakenson emphasized that Mr. Hoffman was prohibited from any further construction on the property. That mandate has been in place since at least 2012, but at the judge’s recent site visit, he walked onto wet concrete—clear evidence of Mr. Hoffman’s continued expansions.

Mr. Smith, after the hearing, made clear that a compromise had also come together for the final ruling on the subject of guests. Although  Mr. Hoffman will not be able to host organized tours or other large groups of people, his assistant can continue to work at the property, and friends and family can visit.

Support for the Last Resort

Around 30 neighbors and friends joined Mr. Hoffman in the courtroom. Richard Lang, a neighbor and longtime friend, expressed relief at the outcome and spoke highly of the judge in particular. Judge Haakenson had visited the property in early November, and Mr. Lang felt he was starting to understand the significance of the Last Resort. For Mr. Lang, his neighbor represents the spirit of West Marin in the ’70s.

While the legal battle over Mr. Hoffman’s property has simmered, community members and friends have been working on a way to acknowledge the historic significance of Mr. Hoffman’s work. John Torrey, a Lagunitas resident and advocate for the site’s preservation, partnered with Mr. Hoffman in 2016 to apply for a designation of architectural significance from the Marin Architectural Commission.

The commission, a relatively new group created by the Board of Supervisors in 2015, provides a level of recognition for properties determined to be “essential to the cultural fabric of Marin.” Commissioner Bruce King, a structural engineer, told the Light in January that sites can be deemed significant if they are important to the historic, architectural or cultural importance or well-being of Marin.

A commission designation is not an endorsement of a site’s structural safety, and it does not mean it must be preserved precisely as it is, Mr. King said. In fact, the owner of a property that the commission designates as significant is free to tear it down. But it does mean the property falls under the California Historic Building Code, which offers greater latitude in adhering to traditional code requirements.

In April, the commission unanimously voted to approve Mr. Hoffman’s application. “We enthusiastically thought David Hoffman’s house qualified. It’s a walk-through sculptural garden,” Mr. King told the Light at the time. Yet within days of the commission’s vote, the designation was suspended—apparently because the application had not been filed properly with the receiver.

In a recent conversation, Mr. Torrey said he is still working to get the designation reinstated. “I’m pretty frustrated by this whole process,” he said. “The county is not listening to historic architects and is  willfully ignorant of folk art environments such as what David has created. It’s time they listened to what the community wants. This is our county as much as it is theirs, and this is what we want in West
Marin.”

Around 2,000 people signed a petition to the county back in 2012 in defense of the property, Mr. Torrey said, and another 1,500 signed a 2017 petition in support of reinstating the historic preservation status.

The most recent court ruling will likely be finalized in the next few weeks. Judge Haakenson scheduled another hearing for March 29; at that time, Mr. Hoffman will provide a status report and the receiver will be welcome to give a report. Mr. Beatty, who is based in Southern California and has to travel to complete his duties, will continue evaluating the property and billing Mr. Hoffman for his time.

Mr. Hoffman, who is battling Lyme disease, said the prospect of rearranging his home life—in any capacity—was daunting. “I’m sorry all of this has made me an outlaw, but I’m proud I can tell my grandsons I did the best that I could,” he said. “I always believed that I was working on solutions, not creating a bigger problem. We can’t rely on government and big business to fix the problems in our world; we need people who understand the problem to do our part to make the planet a better place. The laws of nature just conflict with those that politicians make.”

This article was corrected on Dec. 4, 2017.

San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper Article

By Jonathan Kauffman

David Lee Hoffman will not show me his tea cave.

The Lagunitas cave where Hoffman, owner of the Phoenix Collection, is aging tens of thousands of pounds of tea is well- known in the industry. “All in This Tea,” Les Blank’s 2007 documentary about Hoffman, pictures him loading boxes into it. Marin County, which has been suing Hoffman for more than a decade to bring his 2-acre estate to code, has listed the cave in its extensive complaints.

Yet Hoffman still treats it as a secret. “It’s not open to the public,” he tells me. That may be because most of the teas

stored at the Last Resort, his home and “ecological research center” in the Lagunitas hills, are puers, a genre of Chinese tea equivalent to cult Cabs or single- malt scotches. Hoffman is one of the most storied tea vendors in the United States, and his puers may be worth millions of dollars, albeit to a minuscule cadre of collectors.

As the Phoenix Collection spends down the tea Hoffman has accrued, these serious collectors have found their way to him. Sales, he says, are growing, as is Hoffman’s sense of urgency. Lyme disease, a recent diagnosis, has inflamed the 73- year-old’s joints and sapped his energy. At the same time, Marin County is fed up with Hoffman, who has built 36 structures on his property over the course of 45 years without county permits. Since 2015, the property has been under court-appointed receivership.

At some point, the tea party will end. Hoffman doesn’t know whether he’ll emerge with any money, a home or tea.

***

It takes determination — which, in the Internet age, means a phone call — to learn that the Phoenix Collection actually has an office in a strip mall down the hill from the Last Resort, and that it is open to the public on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

When I visit, then, the hubbub inside comes as a surprise. Six of the carved stools around the tea station have tiny white cups set before them. Two women in their 60s sip from theirs admiringly, watching their partners saw through a 6-foot-long cylinder wrapped in palm leaves and stuffed with Hunanese hua juan tea. A young woman in a peasant dress stops by to give Hoffman vinegar she has made from his apples. Another couple peruse a display of puer tea cakes on display in the shop’s Tea Museum, murmuring over the rounds, the bricks, even a wizened pomelo stuffed with fermented leaves.

Dressed in a blue shirt with Central American embroidery and his customary pageboy cap, Hoffman beams genially at the bustle, calling customers back to their cups each time his assistant, Nawang Tsomo, pours a new round. Part instructor, part host, he regularly darts outside to reposition a silvery solar cooker in the parking lot, returning with warm whole- wheat breads baked inside.

To find so many people interested in tasting esoteric teas is due in part to Hoffman’s proselytizing. When he started Silk Road Teas, his first tea company, 25 years ago, puer (sometimes spelled pu’erh, and pronounced POO-air) was even more rare in the United States than it is today.

Puer comes from Yunnan province in southwest China. In the 14th century, cosmopolitan tea culture in China began brewing loose-leaf tea, but remote Yunnan continued to press tea into cakes for easy transport.. By the 1970s, the tea was almost a curiosity, prized mainly by Yunnanese locals, Tibetans and Cantonese. The latter discovered that as the cakes traveled to southeast China’s sticky, sweltering climate and lingered in storerooms, their flavor became deep and robust, the ideal complement to dim sum and rich stews.

According to Jinghong Zhang, author of “Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic,” in 1973 one tea factory, recognizing Cantonese appetites for these earthy older teas, developed a method for fermenting tea leaves to replicate many of the effects of aging. Since then, puer has been divided into two classes, the artificially fermented or “cooked” (shu) and the “raw” (sheng).

Cooked puer, which brews up almost as dark and opaque as cocoa, can smell like wet leaves or moist humus, with a fruity sweetness and a viscous, satiny body.

Young raw puer resembles green tea, orchids and honeyed stone fruits floating over base notes of hay and toast, with a bitterness that nips the tongue. When it ages naturally, the leaves oxidize and microbial residents get to work.

As the 10-year mark approaches, the aromas of dried tobacco, camphor, dried fruit and incense overcome the flowers and vegetal notes. Every year adds to the tea’s smoothness and depth. The best puer can linger in the throat and flush the chest and forehead, occasionally to a psychotro- pic degree.

It is almost impossible to fall in love with aged puer without wanting to collect it.

***

In 1972, a 28-year-old Hoffman returned to the United States after almost a decade abroad, with the seed of his vast collection in his backpack: a mushroom-shaped cake of puer.

A former engineering student at San Jose State and son of a successful wallpaper manufacturer in Oakland, Hoffman had left the country just after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. On his destination-less pilgrimage, he traveled to more than 100 countries, staying the longest in Nepal, Afghanistan and India, where he lived in Tibetan refugee settlements and fell in love with tea. “Most of the world are tea drinkers,” he recounts. Each time he says “tea,” his voice rises and falls, resonating like a chime.

He returned to the States to recuperate, wasted away after successive bouts of hepatitis and paratyphoid fever. Accompanying him home, too, was a sense of mission. Traveling, “I felt like I was just a sponge soaking everything up,” Hoffman says. “I came back here and wanted to let it all out.”

Soon afterward, he bought a 11⁄2-acre parcel in the steep Lagunitas hills for $38,000, adding another half-acre later. Like many of his back-to-the-land neighbors in West Marin, Hoffman set out to transform the property himself. Unlike them, he never stopped.

A chicken coop appeared, then became a bedroom. He razed a carport to construct an ornate tea room. The structures multiplied, whimsy inseparable from function: A retaining pond and well whose pump was housed in a mock tugboat. A “Solar Power Shower Tower.” An elaborate system for filtering rainwater, gray- water and blackwater through pools, worm beds and terraced organic gardens.

Hoffman attributes his 45-year fascination with organic farming, vermiculture and wastewater systems to his time in India and Nepal. Other fascinations developed over the years. “I’ve been cursed with too many passions in life,” he says. He planted 5 acres of heirloom wheat varieties and milled the grains himself. The garden plots filled with rare potato plants he imported from Peru. When he switched from wood-fired stove to solar cooker, he discovered that cooking in stone pots gave him the best flavor (“I hate plastic,” he adds, with malice), and so he flew to South Korea to commission pots of his own design.

A series of businesses helped fund the construction. Books. Rugs. He invented a method to clean ancient textiles for museums with sonic vibrations. Scouting tea was a hobby that grew into another enterprise.

“I made my first trip to China because I couldn’t find any good tea here,” he says. In the early 1990s, Hoffman sold the textile-cleaning equipment he’d invented and traveled even more widely — to Zhejiang province for flat-bladed Dragonwell, to Guandong for spindly, floral Phoenix Mountain oolongs. He began collecting puers in Hong Kong teashops and ended up visiting farmers in the mountains of Yunnan.

Despite the fact that he was not fluent in spoken or written Mandarin, each trip brought him to new regions and rarer teas. As the export market opened and his reputation grew, the Chinese feted him with television profiles and industry banquets.

Silk Road Teas, operating out of Hoffman’s property, primarily sold to retail brands like Republic of Tea, but also tapped into an audience willing to pay for premium Chinese teas. Sebastian Beckwith, co-founder of the New York City- based In Pursuit of Tea, says that where other companies would import a couple varieties of green tea, Hoffman would sell 30. He’d spend half an hour on the phone with a curious collector who’d end up spending $30. “David did more for education in the early (U.S.) market than anyone else,” Beckwith says.

Hoffman added to his construction projects a cave where he could age his teas without requiring electricity for air circulation or climate control. He excavated into the hills, pouring 100,000 pounds of concrete to line the walls. There, from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, Hoffman filed away teas by the tons — actually, tens of tons.

* * *

By 2002, Silk Road Teas was doing $1 million in gross annual sales despite the fact that, as Hoffman frequently jokes, he had no innate talent for business. When he decided that the company had grown too unwieldy, he sold it to Catherine and Ned Heagerty, the latter a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

The negotiations, Ned Heagerty says, took two years, partly because of Hoffman’s lack of business acumen. Yet the new owner adds that the long courtship, in which the two traveled to China numerous times, was “something wonderful.”

“The beauty was that we were drinking some of the best tea China had to offer,” Heagerty says. “Not only was it a great introduction to tea, my introduction started at the top.”

The sale, finalized in 2004, did not include the contents of the tea cave, which Hoffman attributes to Heagerty’s disinterest, and Heagerty to Hoffman’s unwillingness to part with his puers. Hoffman consulted for the new owner for a few years, but eventually parted ways.

Supposedly, he turned his focus back to the Last Resort. Instead, he returned to China to buy more tea. Hoffman says he saw the collection as an investment that could help sustain the Last Resort. “I’d rather have a good stash of puers than a stack of money,” he says. “At least with tea I can enjoy it and share it.”

In those days, puer was so cheap that he amassed 200,000 pounds of it. Many of the teas he bought, like the baskets and logs on display at the Tea Museum, were heicha, or non-Yunnanese fermented “dark teas,” which were little known even in China.

Around 2010, Hoffman started the Phoenix Collection, competing directly against the company he’d sold just six years before.

***

In those short few years, the Chinese puer market had changed.

In 2006 and 2007, a frenzy of speculation on puer cakes gripped China, akin to the 17th century Dutch tulip craze. Farmers picked every bud that sprouted, trying to meet the demand. Fakeries proliferated. Investors tracked the skyrocketing price of their holdings in the puer press. As Jing- hong Zhang chronicled, unpressed tea from Yiwu, one of the most famous mountains, shot up from 50 to 120 Chinese yuan per kilo in 2005 to over 400 yuan ($92) in 2007. A year later, the market collapsed, and the price dropped by three-quarters.

The boom and bust, however ruinous to speculators, signaled to all of China the value that Cantonese and Taiwanese collectors had long placed on aged puer. Prices slowly rebounded, eventually surpassing the heights of the boom. Merchants now compete for the best leaves, valuing those from older, wilder trees over Communist-era plantations. As incomes in China have risen, so, too, has the Chinese market for high-end teas. “The domestic market has become my biggest competitor,” Heagerty says.

Since the boom, too, an American community of puer collectors has coalesced. “The common trajectory that people go through with tea drinking is they start on the lighter end, and then they get to dark- roasted oolongs,” says Max Falkowitz, a writer and editor at Saveur magazine. “As they’re drinking more with their bodies and appreciating the somatic and emotional effects of tea, that’s where puer starts to interest them.”

Americans, Brits, Singaporeans and Europeans — many of them in their 20s and early 30s — now discuss tea on English-language websites like Steepster as well as in Facebook groups, private Slack channels and Reddit boards. Falkowitz characterizes the online puer community as “fractious, competitive and often pedantic, but at the same time, really generous with their knowledge and experience and generous with their tea.”

A new generation of tea producers and vendors, many based in China, has arisen to supply this market, selling through their own websites or via eBay. Online, specifics are everything: which mountain a tea comes from, whether the trees came from a plantation or a semi-wild arbor, even the name of the farmer. In the case of older puers, vendors may specify whether the tea was stored in dry or humid conditions, considering how significant the effect humidity has on the taste of aged puers.

Hoffman professes ignorance of the online community, and for the most part, they ignore him, too.

The Phoenix Collection accepts orders only via telephone, but the real disconnect is in its approach to tea. Hoffman says, “You should never buy a tea you haven’t tasted.” The online community can’t visit Lagunitas.

The lack of specifics in his catalog is befuddling. Hoffman makes regular forays into the cave, excavates another haul, then figures out what he’s discovered. He doesn’t read much Chinese, so he briefly names and dates the teas based on the sketchy information he remembers about their provenance, trusting in his palate. (His palate, several people in the industry confirm, is excellent.) There is no Chinese equivalent to Hoffman’s Northern Californian tea cave, either, so only those who taste his teas in person can verify whether they are aging well.

At the same time, the Phoenix Collection’s mailing list has grown to 1,000. Chinese merchants have sniffed out his collection, too. They fly to the Bay Area to snap up choice older vintages, selling them to wealthy collectors back home for thousands of dollars.

***

When I visit the Last Resort for a tour, Hoffman won’t even point out where the tea cave is.

Instead, we sit on a terrace looking over his property and the wooded valley below. A breeze through the Lagunitas hills directs the wind chimes in a fairy-bell cantata. Hummingbirds buzz our ears. We can feel the vibration of their wings.

After 45 years of construction, the Last Resort resembles a village in the Himalayas, or perhaps the set of “Game of Thrones” a few weeks before filming. Buildings push against one another as if they are huddling for warmth, linked by walkways and steps that require caution to navigate. Pot shards, boards and doll heads are heaped in random corners. The canted, tiled roof of Hoffman’s unfinished magnum opus, his tea room, may dominate the view, but it’s easy to get distracted by other sights. A boat. A baby bulldozer. The Grand Pissoir, his compostable toilet, to which the county of Marin particularly objects.

Court records show that the county issued its first stop-work order in 1988. The county issued new violations in 1999, then again in 2000, 2001, 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Hoffman waved them all off. “Back then there were people in the county that loved my place,” he says. He claims when he asked the senior building inspector what he needed to do to bring the property into compliance, the guy winked and told him to get out of there.

As Hoffman tells of his fight with Marin County, a trickster theme keeps bubbling up — the wily rascal who has spent his life flouting authority in Afghanistan, China and Lagunitas. The inventor as stubborn iconoclast. The visionary, forging ahead of thelaw.

Those old Marin bureaucrats have all retired. Now, according to county counsel Bryan Case, the county just wants Hoffman to make his property safe.

The violations aren’t limited to bad wiring or overly steep steps. According to a December 2016 evaluation that building forensics consultant LaCroix Davis prepared on the Last Resort, the self-taught builder has constructed houses that might collapse in an earthquake and wells that might drown someone who accidentally falls in. Environmental health inspectors have also expressed concern that Hoffman’s blackwater system would contaminate a nearby watercourse and the San Geronimo Creek.

After the county court ordered Hoffman off the property in 2012 and levied $226,672 in fees — he refused to pay, he kept building — it finally appointed a receiver in 2015.

The receiver, Eric Beatty, is charged with bringing the property up to compliance, using its value to pay all fees and expenses. Some structures may need to be demolished for safety.

Hoffman claims that, with interest included, the county wants him to pay a half- million dollars and worries it could easily acquire the money by razing the land and selling it, bare. Beatty asserts that he is proceeding slowly with the evaluation and remediation. He has let Hoffman live on the property, only insisted the Phoenix Collection move off-site — hence the shop and Tea Museum down the hill.

In the meantime, hundreds of Hoffman’s supporters and neighbors have rallied around his eccentric estate.
They’ve filed petitions, met with county supervisors and appealed to the county architectural commission, updating supporters through a website, thelastresortlagunitas.org. They are trying to secure historic preservation status, although the property is six years short of the required 50-year mark. Another trick for the trickster.

Jo Farb Hernandez, executive director of Spaces, has joined their crusade. Spaces is a nonprofit that advocates for “folk art environments” like the Watts Towers in Los Angeles or Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria (San Luis Obispo County). The Last Resort, she argues, doesn’t just deserve to be preserved for its cultural and artistic merit. She also sees great value in Hoffman’s model of sustainability. “Given the water issues that we have in California, people have to pay attention to forward-thinkers. And forward- thinkers are often breaking the rules.”

Hoffman says that love for the planet fuels his passion for the Last Resort and his willingness to flout the law. “As much as the county is condemning my work, the fact is, (these systems) work!” he says. “I can demonstrate the usefulness of this. And it’s easily adaptable to large-scale environments.”

After fighting the county for a decade now, however, he’s exhausted. Lyme disease has shrunk his ambitions even further. “My goal is to sell off all the tea and then close the doors,” he says, staving off demolitions and evictions long enough to do it.

He has 100,000 pounds to go.

Phoenix Collection Tea Museum, 7282 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Suite 1, Lagunitas; (415) 488-9017, thephoenixcollection.com.

Read the entire article here

The Californian king of pu’er tea

David Lee Hoffman is an American man who popularized pu’er tea (普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá) in the U.S., and is even credited by many with inspiring a cult-like devotion to the fermented tea variety amongst tea connoisseurs in China itself. The San Francisco Chronicle has published a profile of Hoffman that tells the story of his rise to pu’er fame, his extraordinary collection of tea, and the threats he faces from the Marin County government for code violations on the property where he stores his tea in a cave.

By Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and currently edits SupChina and its daily newsletter