Lagunitas tea estate could be razed

03/01/2012

David Lee Hoffman’s Lagunitas estate is a two-acre playground of technical innovation and architectural whim. Rustic stuccoed structures with angled facades and oaken doors dot the steep hillside terrain, along with less conforming treasures: a patterned concrete cave, a six-foot-long worm shrine, a cylindrical motorcycle garage. The crown jewel, a two-storied, green-shingled pagoda, bulges through the trees, shimmering emerald in the light of day. 

“What David’s done there, it is really just amazing,” said Sim Van der Ryn, a renowned architect who has visited the property repeatedly over the years. “I spent three summers in Tibet and, when I first saw it, I said, ‘Jesus, this is where I just came from.’”

Hoffman, a rare tea collector and wholesaler, has spent 40 years transforming two single-family homes on modest adjoining properties into what many see as a demonstration of sustainable alternatives to modern forms of living—using graywater, vermiculture and a composting toilet to garden, and washing dishes with repurposed ash.

And he has done it all, Marin County officials say, without permits.

Last Wednesday, at a county hearing, code enforcement officials and a crowd of nine heard arguments from Hoffman’s 95-year-old attorney concerning the legality of the estate. The county alleges that Hoffman violated regulations when he remodeled former residences, built accessory buildings and retaining walls, disconnected an old septic system and operated a commercial tea business from the property, all while ignoring repeated red tags and stop-work notices.

Hoffman, the subject of two documentary films that have been shot on and off over the past 15 years, says he long believed he was exempt from oversight through a code provision excusing film sets from having to acquire building permits. He also contends that the county has long known of his property but has never taken retributive action “They’ve made me out to be this outlaw, but I’ve never tried to go behind anyone’s back,” he said.

At least 41 neighbors and friends who wrote letters to Supervisor Steve Kinsey appear to agree. “How many properties in Marin can you visit and come away with inspiration and new knowledge,” one neighbor wrote. “I fully realize that it does not conform to regulations and building standards but isn’t there room for art?”

Though testimony concluded last Wednesday, the county has three more weeks to issue a verdict. Should Hoffman be found guilty, he could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, his property could be condemned, and most if not all of his existing structures could be razed.

Cynthia Fetherston, a neighbor and friend, called the county’s actions draconian.  “They don’t bend for anything,” she said. “They’re going to destroy this man’s livelihood and that’s just not right.”

Another neighbor, Walt Scott, said he wasn’t angry that Hoffman chose not to pursue permits: “The system isn’t set up for people like him. David’s just a very, well—just a really unique person.”

Hoffman has a long history of living on the fringe. He grew up in Oakland, the son of a wealthy wallpaper distributor, and studied physics and engineering at San Jose State University, eventually dropping out because all he ever did was “skip class and work on my hot rod.” Hoffman spent the next decade traveling in East Asia, living for months on end with Buddhist monks in Tibet and Nepal, before returning in the early 70’s to Lagunitas, where he purchased a 1.6-acre parcel—the first of the adjoining two now under county scrutiny.

According to his former partner, Susan Shannon, who lived with him in the 80’s, Hoffman’s habits have always been unusual. “He would get up at two or three in the morning and just start making drawings,” she said. “For all sorts of things—inventions, buildings.” Shannon said he once used a dishwasher found in a grocery dumpster as the prototype for a machine that harnessed sonic vibration to clean rare textiles. “He was just always way outside the box.”

Hoffman’s idiosyncrasies amused many, but not all. Chuck Ford, a teacher and Lagunitas resident whose property borders Hoffman’s, described him as a coddled recusant. “David is the scion of an enormously wealthy family and carries with him a sense of entitlement that at times is breathtaking,” Ford wrote in an email. “Rules don’t apply to him. Verbal agreements and written contracts are just so much paper in his mind. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants.”

Hoffman testified during the hearings that his mind doesn’t “think in terms of permits.” He later said he was simply working to find sustainable solutions to larger problems, particularly those related to climate change. “I noticed all the songbirds were dying, and it really disturbed me,” he said. “I always saw them as the canaries in the mineshaft.”

Shannon said Hoffman used to spend upwards of 12 hours a day hauling rocks and shaping timber with an Alaskan wood mill. “The noise pollution from that house was just insane,” she said. “Cement mixers and machines going all the time. I never heard the word ‘permit.’”

By the late 70’s, Hoffman’s projects began infringing on Ford’s land. Ford vows that Hoffman illegally removed one of his large fir trees. “David told me at the time that he was unaware the tree was on our property and that the bank had given him permission to cut the trees,” Ford wrote. “When I asked him what bank held the mortgage and had granted him the permission, he said he had ‘forgotten.’”

A few years later, when Hoffman erected a small cabin on the corner of Ford’s property, Hoffman claimed he didn’t know where the boundary was. “We asked him to remove it. He agreed to, and did nothing,” Ford wrote. “So we sued, and reached a settlement in which he agreed to buy it. Then he never paid.”

When the half-acre parcel bordering Hoffman’s property to the west went on the market in the early 90’s, Shannon, who had by then separated from Hoffman but remained on friendly terms, decided to buy it. Hoffman helped with the down payment and in return was listed as co-owner.

In 1998, Shannon wrote to the county that Hoffman had built an illegal retaining wall on the property “by stacking wooden tea boxes that had been filled with cement.” Officials verified that he had no permit for the wall and posted a notice of violation.

“For the next year and a half, staff received correspondence and phone calls from Mr. Hoffman indicating he was hiring an engineer to legalize the wall,” a county staff report submitted for the hearing stated. “However, Mr. Hoffman never submitted a building permit application, plans or fees.”

The report added that in April of 2001 Shannon wrote a second letter indicating that Hoffman had lowered the wall—though it was still above the legal four-foot limit—but had lengthened it an additional 30 feet.

Debbi Poiani, a county code enforcement agent who has worked on the Hoffman case since the mid-90’s, said that once her agency first discovered Hoffman was building without permits they tried to do everything possible to bring him into compliance. “He certainly received plenty of notices,” she said. “My direction to David for years was to get a professional out there, to have him look at everything, and then to prioritize which things need the least amount of correction and use that to decide which buildings he wanted to keep.”

Around 2001, Poiani convinced Van der Ryn to visit and determine what it would cost to move the cabin that was still resting on Ford’s property. It didn’t take Van der Ryn long to realize that the cost to correct all that Hoffman had done would be staggering. “

Just the technical work alone—of doing the analysis and bringing everything up to code—we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “David didn’t—doesn’t—have that kind of money.”

Van der Ryn, a pioneer in sustainable design, believes Hoffman’s case points to larger deficiencies in current regulations. “How do you get innovation if [the county] makes it so difficult and so costly to do it?” he asked. “There should be room in this code for innovative building systems. You should be able to experiment.”

Van der Ryn and Shannon, who has since reconciled with Hoffman and now supports preserving the property, feel the county is partly to blame for allowing Hoffman to proceed for so long. “Let’s say you let a dog climb up on the couch for 13 years, and one day on the 14th year of the dog’s life, the dog goes to get up on the couch and you throw a big fit,” Shannon said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

According to Poiani, the county tries to avoid enforcement hearings, which are costly and time-consuming.

Many of Hoffman’s backers have suggested alternative solutions, such as allowing him to stay on site and keep existing structures in exchange for community service or preserving it as a public sculpture garden.

Supervisor Kinsey said he is sympathetic to Hoffman’s ordeal, but emphasized the importance of public health standards and Hoffman’s prior unwillingness to compromise. Still, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that in the future he may be able to help find a solution that “reflects the unique nature of the Hoffman situation.”

At the trial on Wednesday, Hoffman was reflective. “I followed a different path,” he said. “I may be at fault. I am trying to remedy my ways. I’m older now. I’ve learned I can’t just build what I want. Whether there is there any value to what I have done, I don’t know.”