Tea purveyor seeks escape from county demolition

11/15/2012

A legal tug of war between county officials and a Lagunitas homeowner who is trying to hold onto a home he has built outside of county regulations appeared to give way late last week, after a county court denied an appeal by David Lee Hoffman to keep the county from seizing what he described as his “life’s work.”

A decision on Friday by Judge Roy Chernus effectively reinstates a ruling requiring that Mr. Hoffman turn over his home and pay a $226,000 fine for evading environmental health regulations and zoning and other building permits.

Now, the fate of Mr. Hoffman’s more than 40-year effort to design a model of sustainable living rests partly in the hands of supporters and an attempt to enshrine the property as a national historic landmark.

“The outcome is certainly out of my hands,” Mr. Hoffman, a rare tea purveyor who runs a wholesale business called the Phoenix Collection out of his home, said.  “We’re hopeful that there will be enough people out there who would like to see it preserved.”

An application delivered to the county a couple weeks ago by friend John Torrey, who lives nearby Mr. Hoffman, is meant to illustrate the “artistic merit” of the Himalayan-inspired home, whose greenhouses and gardens built amid structures made of bamboo and other recycled materials has drawn praise from sustainable design enthusiasts across the world.

The application was acquired through the state’s Office of Historic Preservation, which offers criteria used to determine national historic landmarks. Municipalities across California are able to declare national landmarks, Mr. Torrey said, noting that the Marin County Board of Supervisors has in place policies used to “identify and evaluate historic resources.”

The recommendation includes a petition containing more than 1,000 signatures from supporters and a series photographs taken by Mr. Torrey’s wife, Guggen Petters. It also includes several letters of support from neighbors and architects, including Sim Van der Ryn, a leader in sustainable architecture who has consulted with Mr. Hoffman.  

In one of the letters, Mr. Van der Ryn wrote that he was “amazed and delighted to see a bit of the Himalaya so artfully and lovingly built in West Marin.”

Mr. Torrey started the process in August, after he and his wife were invited for a second time to Mr. Hoffman’s home for dinner and wine with friends. There, the group floated ideas about ways to prevent the county from demolishing the property.

Still, the decision Friday upheld a court order issued earlier this year by an administrative law judge to demolish the property. Mr. Hoffman was launched into a legal battle that gained exposure from national news media after a neighbor complained to authorities about Mr. Hoffman building across property lines.

His home still violates several health codes, even though he has switched to a septic system after years of using self-contained worm composting chambers, a pollution-free method of disposing of waste that is illegal in the county.  

Among the violations is a gray water system that channels sink and shower water to ditches, or moats, along with food scraps digested by worms; the water is then used for gardens bearing potatoes and other vegetables.

“I’ve never seen a property like that,” Armando Alegria, an environmental health supervisor for the county who visited the home last year, said. “The conditions that exist there… are not in compliance with really any regulations.”

But where county officials see broken rules, others see creativity.

Mr. Hoffman’s property blends art with sustainable living; outside the Solar Power Tower Shower, in one example, hovers a life-sized concrete boat suspended above an artificial pond.

Some liken Mr. Hoffman’s property to the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, which was declared a national historic landmark after years of attempts by city officials to tear down the wiry steel and concrete structures that were built without city permission.

The push to demolish the home indicates a dwindling appreciation for ingenuity among authorities, Mr. Torrey said. “Eccentrics, I think, should be occasionally admired, instead of reviled.”

But Mr. Hoffman and his supporters are relying on support from Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who has tried to persuade county officials to lower fines and preserve some of the 30 structures around the property that do not violate any codes.

Those efforts, which Mr. Hoffman described as “lip service,” could materialize with the landmark application that Mr. Torrey placed “right on Kinsey’s desk.”

“The county could, if they wanted to, step in and say, ‘Hey, let’s drop all this legal stuff,” Mr. Torrey said.

Either way, Mr. Hoffman said he plans to remain in the home in which he settled in 1973 with his wife, Ratchanee Chaikamwung, “until [law enforcement] physically remove me.”