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.”

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