New lawyer, more time for beleaguered Lagunitas tea seller

04/08/2020

David Lee Hoffman, the Lagunitas resident embroiled in litigation over extensive unpermitted building on his property, went to court last month and bought himself some time—potentially a lot of time. Mr. Hoffman, who spent over half a million dollars on nine different lawyers in past years and most recently spoke for himself in court proceedings, was represented by a new lawyer, Ann Draper. The San Francisco attorney won her client another month, time she said she would use to pare down the amount her client owes in outstanding penalties, which is estimated to be $1 million. Marin Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson was persuaded by Ms. Draper’s argument that those penalties could be reduced, and prompted her to produce a report by the next hearing, scheduled for May. Two days after the hearing—which drew Mr. Hoffman’s usual local supporters to a crowded courtroom—the court greatly reduced operations in response to the shelter-in-place order. Currently, one criminal arraignment courtroom is also addressing custody arraignments, one is open for family law, one is handling emergency restraining orders, and one juvenile delinquency and dependency. As of March 16, most hearings were continued at least by 90 days. Per instructions from Judge Haakenson last December, the March 12 hearing was intended to be a final one for Mr. Hoffman, in which he and the county would present a settlement agreement to resolve litigation that began over a decade ago. But no agreement has been reached. According to Mr. Hoffman, at issue is the amount of money he is being asked to fork over. There are two steps: first, he has to pay off the fees, and then he has to bring the property up to code, which alone could cost $2.2 million. A nonprofit, the Lagunitas Project, aims to take ownership of the property, but has not been able to raise nearly enough to help Mr. Hoffman take either of these two steps. “I’m at a loss as to what to say for words,” Mr. Hoffman told the judge last month. “I’m okay with vacating the property. What I have a hard time with, though, is coming up with $1 million so I can give my property for free to the Lagunitas Project and the community. That has always been my intention, to give it to the community, but I don’t know how to react to this.” While Mr. Hoffman’s new lawyer works on a plan to reduce the money he owes in fees, Judge Haakenson has ordered the receiver who has been in charge of the property since 2015—attorney Eric Beatty—to proceed with other plans. The judge asked him to prepare a second report detailing the costs and a schedule for bringing the property up to code, in honor of the historic building code. On a point that both the homeowner and the court agree upon, the historic code—which is more lenient than the California building code and honors the property’s architectural and historical significance—should be used to approach the property. Mr. Hoffman, a tea purveyor, models his own gray and black water systems and green building techniques with repurposed materials, a fact that has won him widespread support in the community and beyond.