Lagunitas tea purveyor given time to detail rescue plans

03/13/2019

David Lee Hoffman, a longtime Lagunitas resident and tea purveyor whose property was handed over to a court-appointed receiver in 2015 to bring dozens of unpermitted buildings into compliance, appeared in court last week without lawyers. It was new tactic based on financial strain, but it proved effective. 

Mr. Hoffman, who suffers from poor hearing but held his ground at the podium, came to an agreement with Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson: he won a 90-day continuance to collaborate with the receiver to identify priority structures—based on personal preference and what he can reasonably afford—for rehabilitation under the state’s historic building code. 

The county had previously lobbied against Mr. Hoffman’s request to allow his structures to conform with the historic building code, a more lenient alternative to the building code, which includes thousands of pages of prescriptive requirements. 

But Mr. Hoffman and the many supporters of his property—a model for sustainable living called “The Last Resort,” featuring gray and black water systems and a composting toilet—insisted that the historic code is better tailored to the quirky property.  

Last fall, Mr. Hoffman’s lawyers lost their argument that a determination of architectural significance awarded by the Marin Architectural Commission in 2016 was still valid, which would have placed the property under the historic building code’s terms. 

County counsel countered that the commission’s determination was never valid, as the receiver had never signed off on it. In the end, the judge ordered the receiver to investigate what applying the more lenient code would look like.

“Application of the [state historic building code] is, in the receiver’s view, the only viable course by which many of the unpermitted structures and improvements constructed by Mr. Hoffman may be permitted and allowed to remain in place,” wrote the receiver, attorney Eric Paul Beatty, in a report prepared for last week’s hearing. 

Although Mr. Hoffman commissioned a San Anselmo architectural firm last fall to delineate how the property and its roughly 30 structures might be brought into compliance with the historic code, Mr. Beatty said, “very little of the technical work needed to prepare a meaningful plan of rehabilitation pursuant to the state historic building code has been completed.” 

Mr. Beatty requested permission to create new, detailed plans, structure by structure. 

Deputy county counsel Brian Case conceded that the county was supportive of applying the historic code as long as Mr. Hoffman can finance the process, leading Judge Haakenson to grant Mr. Hoffman’s request for the maximum continuation to try to collaborate with Mr. Beatty.

Mr. Hoffman also announced in court his plans of transferring ownership of the property to a new nonprofit based in the San Geronimo Valley, saying the group has already started fundraising for the transfer. Money is thin: in addition to the thousands Mr. Hoffman has already spent on lawyers and various property assessments, he also faces a nearly $1 million tab on his property taxes, reflecting the court’s administrative penalties and a lien on the property from Bank of America to cover the costs of the receiver’s work.

A Bank of America representative called into the hearing last week, but did not press: she agreed to the continuance. 

“There’s not much value in the property anymore to draw out, but if you can come up with the money to save the structures, that’s up to you,” Judge Haakenson told Mr. Hoffman. 

But he also cautioned that the road was long: the historic code does not shield Mr. Hoffman from extensive permitting and reconstruction costs; by Mr. Hoffman’s own estimate, those costs will run at least $2.2 million. The alternative, to walk away by giving the property away, isn’t easy either: the county and the receiver are still owed fees for their efforts, and even demolition costs money. 

Two other details will be tackled in the next three months. First, the judge asked the county to clarify whether Mr. Hoffman must permit the structures on his property that are less than 300 square feet, of which there are many. Mr. Case said he would look into it. 

Second, Judge Haakenson drew attention to a notice from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board dated Feb. 25, which demands remediation in the next few months over his violation of the state water code by building over Cintura and Alta Creeks. 

Mr. Hoffman said he is perplexed by the violation, and rejected the water board’s claim that he has discharged waste into them. 

The February letter from the water board mandates a restoration plan by this summer, although it newly allows for the alternative of hiring specialists to instead draft mitigation measures.

Mr. Hoffman, who was being filmed while at court by documentarian A.J. Marson, appealed to the judge’s humanity last week, and attempted to explain where he sees the real problem lying. 

“Our planet is in crisis: I have done what I could, and what I have believed in, for 46 years, knowing we have to find new solutions,” he said. “I was a bad boy, I followed a different law, the law of nature. It’s unfortunate that the laws of people have not kept up with the laws of nature, that they conflict.”

Judge Haakenson was largely sympathetic. “I have no desire to punish you, this is not about punishment,” he said. “This is about finding a way to bring your property into compliance with the law. Even though I sit here, I can’t waive the law. I respect the vision you had for your remarkable property, but I still can’t waive the law and let your property stand. I just don’t know if that is economically feasible.”