Tea purveyor faces new twists, mounting bills

David Briggs
VALLEY: David Lee Hoffman’s property in Lagunitas, two acres of technical innovation and architectural whim, has been placed under the control of a court-appointed receiver who is charged with deciding the fate of its dozens of structures.   

Over a year ago, tea purveyor David Lee Hoffman’s property in Lagunitas was put under the control of a receiver, a lawyer appointed by a judge, to decide what to do with the dozens of unpermitted structures built over the last few decades. 

Since then, Mr. Hoffman has moved his business out of his home and attempted to secure county recognition for his property—but a surprising legal twist stymied the latter effort. Meanwhile, bills continue to mount, most recently in the form of a $93,000 lien on the property approved in October.

The legal troubles faced by Mr. Hoffman, who has built experimental structures and systems like a black water recycling system that the county architectural commission argues are worthy of protection, arise from decades of unpermitted building. 

He calls his property The Last Resort, and it currently houses 36 structures. Former state architect Sim Van der Ryn has referred to it as a “magical place that incorporates so many features of advanced ecological design.” It’s meant to be a model of sustainable building and living, and includes many Asian-inspired creations stemming from Mr. Hoffman’s trips to China to buy his choice pu-erh tea. 

But in a court case over the unpermitted buildings, a judge ruled against Mr. Hoffman in 2012, awarding the county  $225,000 in fines. 

More recently, to force action, the county pursued receivership proceedings, and in October 2015 County Judge Paul Haakenson appointed Paul Beatty, a lawyer from Southern California, to be the receiver. He will ultimately devise a plan for the property, deciding what buildings could be brought up to code—likely an expensive proposition—and which should be destroyed. 

The next court appearance is scheduled for March.

In a bid to secure extra protection for the property, Mr. Hoffman and John Torrey, a Lagunitas resident and longtime advocate for the site’s preservation, applied last February for a designation of architectural significance from the Marin Architectural Commission.

The commission, a relatively young group created by the Board of Supervisors in 2015, provides a level of recognition for properties that it determines are “essential to the cultural fabric of Marin,” said Bruce King, a structural engineer and commissioner. Sites can be deemed significant if they are important to the historic, architectural, or cultural importance or well-being of Marin.

The commission has so far received only two applications for the designation—the first from Mr. Hoffman.

But a commission designation is not an endorsement of a site’s structural safety, and it does not mean it must be preserved precisely as it is, Mr. King said. In fact, the owner of a property that the commission designates as significant is free to tear it down. But the designation does mean the property falls under the California Historic Building Code, which offers greater latitude in adhering to traditional code requirements. “You can still make a building safe without making it meet code,” Mr. King said.

He championed the designation as a useful alternative to state historic preservation status, which comes with more restrictions and a stronger preservation mandate. 

In April, the commission unanimously voted to approve Mr. Hoffman’s application. “We enthusiastically thought David Hoffman’s house qualified. It’s a walk-through sculptural garden,” he said.

Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer, Paul Smith, emailed the receiver to let him know about the designation. But within two days of the commission’s vote, the designation was suspended. The building department told Mr. Smith that, according to county counsel, the application to the commission had not been filed properly, since the receiver is in charge of the property.

Mr. Beatty did not respond to a request for comment this week. 

Mr. Smith hopes the designation will still sway the judge when decisions are made about the property’s fate. “I can assure you when the receiver comes to the court with his report… We will be there to ensure the judge is aware of the fact of the cultural and historical significance,” he said.

Mr. Torrey, the advocate working on behalf of Mr. Hoffman, compared the property to other sites deemed important enough to preserve after unpermitted construction, such as the Watts Tower in Los Angeles. He also critiqued the county for seeming to work at cross-purposes. “The commission wants to see it preserved. Eighteen-hundred residents want to see it preserved,” he said, referring to an online petition. 

In 2012, Mr. Torrey sent then-supervisor Steve Kinsey an application to designate the site a historic landmark, but it was never acted upon. He is now working on an application to the State Historic Preservation Office, which he hopes to submit in the coming months. 

Meanwhile, court records show that Mr. Hoffman’s bills are mounting. He owes roughly $300,000 on a property tax bill, the result of the county transferring the court’s administrative penalties to his tax bill. If those fees are not paid in five years, the property could be put on the public auction block. 

Additionally, in October, Mr. Beatty got Judge Haakenson’s approval for a $93,000 lien on the property from Bank of America to cover the costs of his work, which recently included a survey of the property. Bank liens, if unpaid, can eventually lead to foreclosure.

An agreement to reduce the amount that Mr. Hoffman owes has not come to fruition , but a new supervisor could potentially bring new efforts toward resolution. When asked about Mr. Hoffman’s property, Dennis Rodoni wrote in an email, “I am sorting out a lot of history about the Hoffman property and will be making some recommendations in the next couple weeks.”

Despite all the uncertainty, Mr. Hoffman says his new shop in Lagunitas, which he opened about six months ago to comply with the county’s request that he move the business out of his home, is going well. The shop, named the Tea Museum, sells packages of his many teas as well as Chinese tea sets. It is only open to the public for four hours on Saturdays. 

But Mr. Hoffman is not optimistic about the future of his property. “I’m assuming I am going to lose everything,” he said, a painful prospect that he said would probably spur him to leave the country. But, for now, he is appreciative of what he has, including a bountiful garden and great blue herons that visit it. “I’m grateful I’m still here in this beautiful part of the world,” he said. “I never lose sight of that.”