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

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article

VALLEY: David Lee Hoffman’s property in Lagunitas, two acres of technical innovation and architectural whim, has been placed under the control of a court-appointed receiver who is charged with deciding the fate of its dozens of structures.

Article “Tea Purveyor Faces New Twists, Mounting Bills” published on 01/05/2017 in the Point Reyes Light about David’s current situation.

http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/tea-purveyor-faces-new-twists-mounting-bills

David and his grandson Theo.

“Theo reads about his grandfather’s ordeal with the County in the Saturday edition of the Marin Independent Journal, October 3, 2015″

David Lee Hoffman and his grandson.

David Lee Hoffman and his grandson, Theo.

Point Reyes Light Newspaper Article

POINT REYES LIGHT NEWSPAPER ARTICLE
August 13, 2015
Anticipating takeover, tea purveyor promotes worm systems


By Samantha Kimmey
A grand Japanese farm- style roof, a boat amidst a pool of rainwater, and lush green plants growing atop an outside restroom are some of the most eye- catching features of famed tea importer David Lee Hoffman’s ornate Lagunitas home. For Mr. Hoffman, how- ever, it is sustainable living systems that he has installed and invented on his two adjacent proper- ties—which he calls the Last Resort—that are paramount. “For me, this place is about the systems, not the structures,” he said at an open house he held on Saturday.

Mr. Hoffman orga-nized the event, which drew perhaps 200 friends and supporters over the course of the day, because he fears that his compound is in immediate jeopardy: Three years after a court judgment in the county’s favor, his lawyer said the county wants to place his property under a court-appointed authority to tackle the dozen or so unpermitted buildings and code violations.

The county’s code enforcement specialist, Cristy Stanley, confirmed on Wednesday that this is indeed the case. “Citing health and safety concerns, the County has elected to seek the appointment of a receiver to remediate a long list of significant code violations on David Lee Hoffman’s residential properties,” she wrote in an email.

Mr. Hoffman will be allowed to remain at his home when a receiver evaluates the property, a lawyer for the county in charge of receivership proceedings, Charisse Smith, said in the same email. Ms. Smith also said the receiver must “seek specific instructions from the court before taking any action that hasn’t been previously authorized by court order.”

In 2012, Mr. Hoffman was fined over $200,000 by a judge, after the county charged that he had built a vast array of structures without permits and that his water recycling systems could contaminate the watershed. (Those fees, with interest now roughly $300,000, have been tacked on to his property tax bill, Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer said.) Mr. Hoffman freely admits to building without permits for decades, but stresses that his system for recycling human waste is “completely closed.” Advocates have hoped to secure historic status for the place—as representative of the environmental movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and as an “artistic environment”— but so far that effort has not borne fruit.

Mr. Hoffman, widely credited as one of the first to bring high quality teas from China to the United States, is now in the process of winding down his tea import business, the Phoenix Collection, which he started in 2009 after selling his previous tea business in 2004. He made his final trip to China just a few weeks ago, and he will cease operations when he sells the remainder of the tea, likely within a year. The county says he cannot operate the business out of his home; after a recent rental opportunity fell through, Mr. Hoffman, who is in his 70s, decided that he is too exhausted to keep going.

Fearing his days of owning the Last Resort are also numbered, he hosted this weekend’s event to educate people about living sustainably and, in particular, the power of earthworm-based composting, or vermiculture. He also wanted to celebrate: it was both Mr. Hoffman’s birthday and the anniversary of the day he moved to the property. Between and after lectures, guests sipped on oolongs and pu-erhs out of thimble-sized white cups, munched on roasted eggplant and falafel in pita bread, and ate forkfuls of moist chocolate birthday cake.

Mr. Hoffman, in a brown linen shirt with a Nehru collar, said he has been working with earthworms—“one of the most important creatures on the planet”— for 44 years. The worms that today turn left over food scraps and human waste into compost all descend from his original cohort.

In his “Worm Palace,” a six-foot long container, the annelids create compost from a mix of food scraps, kitchen grey- water, and calcium from cooked bones and oyster shells. The worms turn this mixture into worm castings, a nutrient-rich fertilizer, which he uses to grow vegetables. To him, this epitomizes the crucial cycle of ecological living. On Saturday, he scooped a handful of crawling worms out to show a small group listening to his presentation. “Smells like good, healthy earth,” he said, offering his audience a whiff.

Then there is his more contentious system, which he calls the Grand Pissoir. It’s a toilet that sends human waste—along with scoops of carbonaceous material to provide the right balance of nutrients— to another group of earthworms. Once the worms eat it, it’s “not poop.” Then he corrected himself. “Well, it’s worm poop,” or fertilizer akin to that created from kitchen scraps. He got the system fully functioning just last year, he told the crowd. The water that flushes the toilet is filtered, he says, then pumped to the roof where it is “bio-filtered” through plants and soil, and then it goes back to the toilet. Rainwater replenishes the system as water evaporates.

“This system is easily scalable,” he said, and can work with just six hours of sunlight a day and at least 20 inches of rain a year. But, he conceded, the politics of operating a system that recycles human waste is complicated. “The laws of nature and the laws that we create don’t match up,” he said.
Mr. Hoffman’s attorney, Paul Smith, worries that a receiver would wipe out his client’s work. That’s because the point of a receiver, Mr. Smith said, “is to bring property into compliance as quickly as possible. Well, guess how that is? You tear everything down.”

Mr. Hoffman has paid for a hydrologic study of the property, a final draft of which is due this week, to prove that those systems are safe. Mr. Smith said he hopes to find a way to convince the county not to appoint a receiver but instead bring in a construction expert to evaluate the buildings and try to bring what was deemed unsafe into compliance.
 Ms. Stanley said that the receiver, Eric Beatty, would attempt to save some structures. “[He] will study the possibility of legalizing some structures on the properties that have unique alternative building design characteristics,” she wrote. “The County adopted an alternative building design ordinance in 2014 that may provide flexibility in code standards to facilitate the legalization process for some structures on the properties.”
To friends at the open house, the prospect of losing all or pieces of Last Resort was painful to consider. Marilyn Milos, who lives in the valley, called it “heart- breaking” and said the property should be “appreciated, not destroyed.”

Mr. Hoffman is doubtful of convincing the county to save all his structures, though he is willing to let his property fall out of his hands to an organization or nonprofit that will care for it. Now that he has finished designing the systems, he said at the open house, “I feel like my work is done.”

SPACES Website and Letter of Support

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SPACES, a website that aims to document and archive art environments around the world has created a page on their website devoted to The Last Resort. The director of spaces, Jo Farb Hernández also pledged support for The Last Resort in a letter the Marin County Board of Supervisors. See the letter here.

Le Grand Pissour

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Jim Edelhauser & Cecile Lelievre have put together a short film documenting Le Grand Pissour. Watch it here.

David Lee Hoffman CCTV (China Central Television) Segment

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This beautiful short film on David Lee Hoffman was cut from a CCTV series. See it here.

Producer/Director: Weimin Zhang
Cinematographer: Pedro Gomez; Andrew Marson
Sound: Aubrey Moody
Editor: Andrew Marson

 

Planeta Twenergy Feature

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The website Planeta Twenergy features examples of sustainable design from around the planet. Correspondent Susana Pinar visited The Last Resort and put together a great short film documenting life at The Last Resort. See it here.

Marin TV Program “Seriously Now” segment on The Last Resort

“Seriously Now”, a Marin TV Program, “show-casing local news, events and the panoramic beauty of Marin County”, has a segment on THE LAST RESORT.

Watch here.