Beleaguered Lagunitas tea seller given three months to vacate property

By Ike Allen | Pt. Reyes Light

Marin County is a step closer to winning its long legal battle with a Lagunitas tea seller whose property is filled with experimental, unpermitted structures. Last month, a judge ordered David Lee Hoffman to vacate and turn over possession of the property called the Last Resort, where Mr. Hoffman has lived for almost half a century, within 90 days.

Presiding over a tea ceremony with some regulars at his Tea Museum, Mr. Hoffman seemed uncertain, if not especially worried, about the future. He said he doesn’t have a clear plan for what to do within the next three months. “I really didn’t think it would come to this,” he said. “I thought the judge would be creative enough to come up with a better solution.”

Mr. Hoffman, who deals in Chinese pu’erh tea, has built almost 40 structures on his property in the Lagunitas hills, including his own blackwater recycling and worm composting systems. He admits that some of his constructions are illegal, but he thinks of them as a model for sustainability. “I wanted to make it so it could never again be sold,” he said, “but I wanted to make it so it could continue to be enjoyed after I’m gone.”

Mr. Hoffman has been contending with code enforcement penalties and lawyer bills for more than a decade. In 2015, Judge Paul Haakenson put the property under control of a receiver to decide what to do with the unpermitted structures. The following year, Mr. Hoffman opened his tea museum on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard as a way of “winning points with the county” by separating his business from his home. He has spent about a million dollars on legal counsel, by his lawyer’s estimation.

Aside from the notice to vacate, Judge Haakenson’s May 21 order gave the receiver permission to hire a broker to market the property. Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer, Ann Draper, is working pro bono on a plan to appeal the ruling and did not want to jeopardize it by providing details. She and Mr. Hoffman have about a month and a half to file the appeal.

Mr. Hoffman said over the years, county supervisors have given him mixed signals about whether they supported his efforts to hold onto the property. He said Supervisor Dennis Rodoni was “on the fence” about the issue. In an email to the Light, Supervisor Rodoni said, “The County and the Courts have given Mr. Hoffman many years to come up with a plan to resolve the outstanding issues and pay for the back costs and back taxes. He has simply run out of time.” He said he’s hopeful a nonprofit will buy the property and save Mr. Hoffman’s work.

Paul Seaton, the executive director of the nonprofit Lagunitas Project, is trying to raise the roughly $4.6 million needed to buy and rehabilitate the property. He believes the mounting penalties don’t fit Mr. Hoffman’s crime.
“Back in the day in the ‘70s, you could do anything on your property in West Marin,” he said. “The joke was, a building permit is a blue tarp. Over the years, all this got lost.” The Lagunitas Project has the endorsement of the Marin chapter of the Sierra Club, but Mr. Seaton said he needs to connect with more donors and explore more methods of raising money. If the effort fails, he believes there will be an outcry from the community. “You almost think people will be chaining themselves to the gate here,” he said. “There’s a lot of supporters.”

Resolution in sight for Lagunitas tea purveyor

by Anna Guth | Point Reyes Light

The date has been set for a mandatory settlement conference between the county and David Lee Hoffman, the Lagunitas resident who for years has defended the dozens of unpermitted structures on his property despite mounting fines. In superior court this month, Judge Paul Haakenson put the settlement discussion on the calendar for March 12, a meeting he hopes will result in a final resolution. The conference will include county counsel, the receiver to whom the judge gave control over the property in 2015, a representative from the Bank of America—which has a lien on the property—and members of the Lagunitas Project, a nonprofit that has been fundraising for months and hopes to eventually take ownership of the property. Mr. Hoffman faces a nearly $1 million tab on his property taxes in penalties and fees, alongside the estimated cost of $2.2 million to bring his property into compliance. Paul Seaton, the executive director of the Lagunitas Project, said he hopes for $90,000 in grant monies next year. With support from groups like the Marin chapter of the Sierra Club, the project envisions using Mr. Hoffman’s property as a model of sustainable systems. Though Mr. Hoffman and the county have agreed to apply the more lenient historic building code to the property—dubbed The Last Resort—the settlement will iron out the details. For example, Mr. Seaton hopes the county will agree to preserve the extensive and unique gray water system, which filters and recycles water, and a black water system that composts human waste. In a letter sent in August, the chair of the local Sierra Club chapter, Judy Schriebman, wrote that Mr. Hoffman has demonstrated a “nearly closed-loop cycle for waste treatment and food production, on a very small property. This is an extraordinarily powerful and unique working example of sustainability.” At the hearing last Friday, Judge Haakenson encouraged Mr. Hoffman not to stall the settlement in any way, considering the case has dragged on for more than a decade and that the alternative to an agreement was bulldozing. “What I often tell people embroiled in litigation is to look forward, not backwards, and not to pose the problem but rather the solution. That’s what we are going to work on in the next 90 days,” he said. 

Lagunitas tea purveyor reports progress in county settlement talks


Settlement discussions are underway between Marin County and David Lee Hoffman, the Lagunitas resident who faces mounting fines in his fight to preserve dozens of unpermitted structures on his property. At a hearing last Friday, both parties reported to Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson that their negotiations over the past three months had been productive, though they have yet to reach an agreement. The court will reconvene in 90 days to hear their progress.

 Paul Seaton, a San Rafael attorney who is serving as the executive director for the Lagunitas Project, updated Judge Haakenson on Friday that the group has more than $90,000 in promised donations. Mr. Seaton is working with the receiver—who has been in control of Mr. Hoffman’s property since 2015—and county counsel Brian Case to determine how to best bring the 36 structures and other features on the property into compliance with county code.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hoffman, who dismissed his lawyers earlier this year to take matters into his own hands, has been tackling the financial aspect of the settlement with Mr. Case. Transferring ownership of the property to the nonprofit will be a part of the settlement. Thanks to Mr. Seaton’s advocacy, the Marin chapter of the Sierra Club penned a letter to the judge this month in support of preserving the property, which it wrote was a model of sustainability.

Mr. Hoffman and his many supporters have long advocated for the county to apply a more lenient code, the California Historic Building Code, to the property, which they argue has architectural and historical significance. The Sierra Club’s letter favored the application of this code; doing so could involve the reinstatement of the Marin County Architectural Commission’s deci-sion from 2016 that the site is historically important. (The status of that designation is under dispute.) 

“While the land use of the Last Resort property is unconventional, we acknowledge that unconventional approaches will be needed in order to over-come the global environmental challenges facing humanity,” wrote Judy Schriebman, chair of the Marin Group Sierra Club. “Under normal circumstances, the Sierra Club would be inclined to challenge property use that involved over-building. In this case, whatever its origins, we now feel there are vitally important overriding considerations in favor of preservation.”

Ms. Schriebman described the two overriding considerations, including that Mr. Hoffman has demonstrated a “nearly closed-loop cycle for waste treatment and food production, on a very small property. This is an extraordinarily powerful and unique working example of sustainability.” Second, Mr. Hoffman has treated the property “as a community resource, opening [it] to tours by international land-use designers, individuals interested in small-scale sustainable land use, and even local school field trips, as well as offering a meeting space.” 

Judge Haakenson acknowledged the letter on Friday and emphasized that he has not taken the many opportunities that have come before him to order the property to be demolished. Mr. Hoffman, who now is well accustomed to speaking on his own in court despite his trouble hearing, raised an issue concerning a mysterious fee charged by the Bank of America during his settlement discussions. Judge Haakenson, speaking to a Bank of America representative who phoned in to the hearing, more or less resolved the issue, which proved to be a previous fine rather than a new penalty. The judge encouraged Mr. Hoffman to stay positive. “Step away from the ledge and do not put a damper on the negotiations,” the judge advised. “Your highest and best hope is to negotiate. and to bring the property in compliance with the law.”

[ Note: Paul Seaton, Executive Director of the Lagunitas Project is not a lawyer nor has The Lagunitas Project currently been promised $90,000 in donations, but is awaiting $90,000 in potential rewards from pending grant applications. ]

OPINION Marin Voice: Commercial developers are threatening Lagunitas’ Last Resort

David Lee Hoffman pours cups of tea he brewed for visitors over an open fire on Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in Lagunitas. He has been building exotic, Tibetan and Chinese inspired structures on his Lagunitas land for 40 years without permits from Marin County. He now faces $460,000 in fines and a court order to tear everything down. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

By MARI SEREBROV | August 19, 2019 at 10:33 am

An outgrowth of the back-to-the-earth movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Last Resort in Lagunitas is a testament to one man’s ingenuity and his dream of developing a practical, low-cost ecological system that could serve as a demonstration project for his community.

Now, nearly 50 years after David Lee Hoffman began turning his two acres of hillside into an artistic environmental model of living sustainably, Marin County officials are threatening to destroy everything he’s created by reneging on old agreements and assessing penalties approaching $1 million. That includes hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate off-site environmental damage that has nothing to do with the Last Resort.

What could be lost, if the county doesn’t back down in court later this month, is a unique integrated bio-management system that uses vermiculture, composting and healthy gray water processes to produce a natural fertilizer that enriches the soil for growing high-grade organic food. Also at stake are more than 35 buildings that the Marin County Architectural Commission has cited for their architectural significance.

So what is the Last Resort?

“It’s an important and significant example of East-West folk art,” according to sustainable architect Sim Van der Ryn, who was appointed California State Architect by former governor Jerry Brown and is on the architecture faculty at the University of California at Berkeley.

Others consider it a quintessential living history – a prime example of the do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land, Mother Earth ethos of the 1960s put into practice.

For Hoffman, the Last Resort is his home. It embodies three principles: water is precious, soil is sacred and human waste is a resource. Following those principles, Hoffman, who has an engineering and physics background, designed all the systems at the Last Resort to be completely isolated and self-contained so there is no chance of polluting the environment.

Considered a leading global authority on pu-erh teas, Hoffman is known in the tea world for introducing and popularizing fine handcrafted artisanal teas to the West. With his extensive background in vermiculture and soil fertility, Hoffman worked with China’s prestigious National Tea Research Institute, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Agriculture to help them implement organic and sustainable tea-farming practices.

Hoffman has argued that the buildings, including the original house that was built in the 1920s, should be held to the historical building code. He admits that as he developed his compound, he didn’t bother with building permits. Back in the 1970s, no one in that part of the county did. “We were pretty much left alone,” Hoffman said. Even when the county started handing him red tags years later for not having a permit, there was a tacit agreement that everything was OK.

That all changed about 10 years ago when a new generation of building inspectors came into county government. The county initially agreed to settle the permit violations for $60,000 but then reneged on that offer, Hoffman said. Its latest settlement offer was $700,000 in penalties.

The costs escalated when a judge appointed a receiver to determine the property needs. With Hoffman expected to pay for the receiver’s time and all expenses, the receiver has called in multiple experts and agencies to identify violations that “could” be occurring at the Last Resort. Hoffman’s struggle to preserve his vision “got more complex and more convoluted with all these agencies,” he said.

Hoping to pass the ecological lessons he’s learned to future generations, Hoffman is working with the Lagunitas Project to preserve the Last Resort property in a Public Benefit Trust.

“I set out 46 years ago to create a living model of sustainability. I succeeded,” Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, commercial developers are circling.

The public is welcome to attend the case management conference in Marin Superiour Court at the Civic Center in San Rafael, 9 a.m. on Friday. Go to for more information.

Mari Serebrov, who lives in Arkansas, is an award-winning journalist and author. She originally wrote this article for

Marin judge grants ‘Last Resort’ compound another temporary reprieve

By Richard Halstead | | Marin Independent Journal

The so-called Last Resort, David Lee Hoffman’s Tibetan-style experiment in sustainable living in Lagunitas, received another stay of execution Friday.

Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson warned, however, that this might indeed be Hoffman’s last resort.

Hoffman, who gained notoriety as an importer of exotic teas, has been battling with Marin County for many years over some 36 buildings he constructed without proper permits on his property at 2 Alta Ave. and 230 Cintura Ave.

Hoffman settled on the property in 1973 and modified existing cabin-style residences that had been built in the early 1900s. He also added storage buildings, ponds, retaining walls and ornamental structures — including a full-size replica of a fishing boat suspended in a pond of rainwater — all without permits.

“It is a work of art; it is my life’s work,” Hoffman, who represented himself in court Friday, told Haakenson.

County health inspectors were not impressed, however, by Hoffman’s unpermitted outdoor composting toilet or his kitchen composting system that used worms and a series of open-air moats. They said the moats were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the toilet threatened the aquifer and nearby streams with contamination from sewage.

Hoffman owes the county close to $1 million in unpaid taxes, fees and penalties, and the cost of retrofitting the structures to bring them into compliance with county code has been estimated at $2.2 million.

In 2015, Haakenson appointed a receiver to manage the property and make the necessary changes, including, if needed, demolishing the unpermitted structures and selling the property to recoup associated costs.

On Friday, Haakenson told Hoffman that a day of reckoning is swiftly approaching. He gave Hoffman 60 days to talk with the county about the possibility of dismissing the receiver and mapping out a plan for paying the money owed and making the necessary changes to make the structures legal.

Haakenson said no matter how sympathetic he might be to Hoffman’s plight he can’t ignore the outstanding violations.

“Unfortunately, this robe doesn’t give me that kind of power,” Haakenson said.

There is, however, a ray of hope for the Last Resort. Last fall, a group of Hoffman’s supporters created the Lagunitas Project, a nonprofit whose main mission is to preserve the Last Resort by transferring ownership of the property to a charitable trust. The Lagunitas Project would serve as trustee.

“We would hope the receiver would step down once the penalties and fees are resolved and the property goes into the trust,” said Paul Seaton, the Lagunitas Project’s executive director.

Seaton said the Lagunitas Project has raised $100,000 so far.

Deputy County Counsel Brian Case told Haakenson on Friday that the county is willing to discuss the possibility of dismissing the receiver and once again working directly with Hoffman on creating a plan to bring the property into compliance.

Haakenson told Hoffman he should appreciate the county’s generous offer to consider turning back the clock.

“If I were you, I’d by crying out in joy,” Haakenson told him.

Haakenson told Hoffman he should also be grateful for the efforts of the receiver, Eric Beatty, who has secured a tentative agreement with federal, state and local regulatory agencies to accept off-site mitigation, instead or requiring him to move his structures out of Cintura and Alta creeks.

To demonstrate that he is serious about negotiating, Hoffman took what he said was $60,000 in cash out of his briefcase and put it on the table in front of him. Hoffman said he has already spent half a million dollars on attorney fees.

Hoffman is hoping that Marin County will accept his bid to apply California Historical Building Code rules to his structures instead of the county’s more stringent building code. Last year, Haakenson rejected a request to validate the Marin County Architectural Commission’s determination in 2016 that all 36 of the Last Resort’s structures have “architectural significance.”

In his tentative ruling, Haakenson wrote that he was not opposed to allowing the restoration of the property under the less onerous regulatory requirements, but the county would have to sign off on such a plan.

While Case said the county is open to discussion of the matter, he said Hoffman has not presented it with any substantive proposal.

Case noted that in a June 7 court filing, the receiver, Beatty, wrote that “The Lagunitas Project does include any discussion of restoration of the altered watercourses across the properties or preservation of the water retention basins or retaining walls at the properties.”

Beatty also wrote in the filing that “The Lagunitas Project provides no offer of funding to the receivership estate for the receiver to complete any of the work needed to move forward with a plan of rehabilitation for any structures or improvements.”

He added, “It is not financially feasible for the receiver to undertake the complicated assessment and documentation process unless the delinquent property taxes are paid in full and the receivership estate is supplied with at least $425,000 in immediate funding.”

Lagunitas tea purveyor given time to detail rescue plans

By Anna Guth, The Point Reyes Light

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.”

Steeped in controversy: Marin tea guru in the fight of a lifetime

Jonathan Kauffman 

David Lee Hoffman will not show me his tea cave.

The Lagunitas cave where Hoffman, owner of the Phoenix Collection, is aging tens of thousands of pounds of tea is well-known in the industry. “All in This Tea,” Les Blank’s 2007 documentary about Hoffman, pictures him loading boxes into it. Marin County, which has been suing Hoffman for more than a decade to bring his 2-acre estate to code, has listed the cave in its extensive complaints.

Yet Hoffman still treats it as a secret. “It’s not open to the public,” he tells me.

That may be because most of the teas stored at the Last Resort, his home and “ecological research center” in the Lagunitas hills, are puers, a genre of Chinese tea equivalent to cult Cabs or single-malt scotches. Hoffman is one of the most storied tea vendors in the United States, and his puers may be worth millions of dollars, albeit to a minuscule cadre of collectors.

As the Phoenix Collection spends down the tea Hoffman has accrued, these serious collectors have found their way to him. Sales, he says, are growing, as is Hoffman’s sense of urgency. Lyme disease, a recent diagnosis, has inflamed the 73-year-old’s joints and sapped his energy. At the same time, Marin County is fed up with Hoffman, who has built 36 structures on his property over the course of 45 years without county permits. Since 2015, the property has been under court-appointed receivership.

At some point, the tea party will end. Hoffman doesn’t know whether he’ll emerge with any money, a home or tea.

It takes determination — which, in the Internet age, means a phone call — to learn that the Phoenix Collection actually has an office in a strip mall down the hill from the Last Resort, and that it is open to the public on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

When I visit, then, the hubbub inside comes as a surprise. Six of the carved stools around the tea station have tiny white cups set before them. Two women in their 60s sip from theirs admiringly, watching their partners saw through a 6-foot-long cylinder wrapped in palm leaves and stuffed with Hunanese hua juan tea. A young woman in a peasant dress stops by to give Hoffman vinegar she has made from his apples. Another couple peruse a display of puer tea cakes on display in the shop’s Tea Museum, murmuring over the rounds, the bricks, even a wizened pomelo stuffed with fermented leaves.

Dressed in a blue shirt with Central American embroidery and his customary pageboy cap, Hoffman beams genially at the bustle, calling customers back to their cups each time his assistant, Nawang Tsomo, pours a new round. Part instructor, part host, he regularly darts outside to reposition a silvery solar cooker in the parking lot, returning with warm whole-wheat breads baked inside.

To find so many people interested in tasting esoteric teas is due in part to Hoffman’s proselytizing. When he started Silk Road Teas, his first tea company, 25 years ago, puer (sometimes spelled pu’erh, and pronounced POO-air) was even more rare in the United States than it is today.

Puer comes from Yunnan province in southwest China. In the 14th century, cosmopolitan tea culture in China began brewing loose-leaf tea, but remote Yunnan continued to press tea into cakes for easy transport.. By the 1970s, the tea was almost a curiosity, prized mainly by Yunnanese locals, Tibetans and Cantonese. The latter discovered that as the cakes traveled to southeast China’s sticky, sweltering climate and lingered in storerooms, their flavor became deep and robust, the ideal complement to dim sum and rich stews.

According to Jinghong Zhang, author of “Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic,” in 1973 one tea factory, recognizing Cantonese appetites for these earthy older teas, developed a method for fermenting tea leaves to replicate many of the effects of aging. Since then, puer has been divided into two classes, the artificially fermented or “cooked” (shu) and the “raw” (sheng).

Cooked puer, which brews up almost as dark and opaque as cocoa, can smell like wet leaves or moist humus, with a fruity sweetness and a viscous, satiny body.

Young raw puer resembles green tea, orchids and honeyed stone fruits floating over base notes of hay and toast, with a bitterness that nips the tongue. When it ages naturally, the leaves oxidize and microbial residents get to work.

As the 10-year mark approaches, the aromas of dried tobacco, camphor, dried fruit and incense overcome the flowers and vegetal notes. Every year adds to the tea’s smoothness and depth. The best puer can linger in the throat and flush the chest and forehead, occasionally to a psychotropic degree.

It is almost impossible to fall in love with aged puer without wanting to collect it.

In 1972, a 28-year-old Hoffman returned to the United States after almost a decade abroad, with the seed of his vast collection in his backpack: a mushroom-shaped cake of puer.

A former engineering student at San Jose State and son of a successful wallpaper manufacturer in Oakland, Hoffman had left the country just after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. On his destination-less pilgrimage, he traveled to more than 100 countries, staying the longest in Nepal, Afghanistan and India, where he lived in Tibetan refugee settlements and fell in love with tea. “Most of the world are tea drinkers,” he recounts. Each time he says “tea,” his voice rises and falls, resonating like a chime.

He returned to the States to recuperate, wasted away after successive bouts of hepatitis and paratyphoid fever. Accompanying him home, too, was a sense of mission. Traveling, “I felt like I was just a sponge soaking everything up,” Hoffman says. “I came back here and wanted to let it all out.”

Soon afterward, he bought a 1½-acre parcel in the steep Lagunitas hills for $38,000, adding another half-acre later. Like many of his back-to-the-land neighbors in West Marin, Hoffman set out to transform the property himself. Unlike them, he never stopped.

A chicken coop appeared, then became a bedroom. He razed a carport to construct an ornate tea room. The structures multiplied, whimsy inseparable from function: A retaining pond and well whose pump was housed in a mock tugboat. A “Solar Power Shower Tower.” An elaborate system for filtering rainwater, graywater and blackwater through pools, worm beds and terraced organic gardens.

Hoffman attributes his 45-year fascination with organic farming, vermiculture and wastewater systems to his time in India and Nepal. Other fascinations developed over the years. “I’ve been cursed with too many passions in life,” he says. He planted 5 acres of heirloom wheat varieties and milled the grains himself. The garden plots filled with rare potato plants he imported from Peru. When he switched from wood-fired stove to solar cooker, he discovered that cooking in stone pots gave him the best flavor (“I hate plastic,” he adds, with malice), and so he flew to South Korea to commission pots of his own design.

A series of businesses helped fund the construction. Books. Rugs. He invented a method to clean ancient textiles for museums with sonic vibrations. Scouting tea was a hobby that grew into another enterprise.

“I made my first trip to China because I couldn’t find any good tea here,” he says. In the early 1990s, Hoffman sold the textile-cleaning equipment he’d invented and traveled even more widely — to Zhejiang province for flat-bladed Dragonwell, to Guandong for spindly, floral Phoenix Mountain oolongs. He began collecting puers in Hong Kong teashops and ended up visiting farmers in the mountains of Yunnan.

Despite the fact that he was not fluent in spoken or written Mandarin, each trip brought him to new regions and rarer teas. As the export market opened and his reputation grew, the Chinese feted him with television profiles and industry banquets.

Silk Road Teas, operating out of Hoffman’s property, primarily sold to retail brands like Republic of Tea, but also tapped into an audience willing to pay for premium Chinese teas. Sebastian Beckwith, co-founder of the New York City-based In Pursuit of Tea, says that where other companies would import a couple varieties of green tea, Hoffman would sell 30. He’d spend half an hour on the phone with a curious collector who’d end up spending $30. “David did more for education in the early (U.S.) market than anyone else,” Beckwith says.

Hoffman added to his construction projects a cave where he could age his teas without requiring electricity for air circulation or climate control. He excavated into the hills, pouring 100,000 pounds of concrete to line the walls. There, from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, Hoffman filed away teas by the tons — actually, tens of tons.

By 2002, Silk Road Teas was doing $1 million in gross annual sales despite the fact that, as Hoffman frequently jokes, he had no innate talent for business. When he decided that the company had grown too unwieldy, he sold it to Catherine and Ned Heagerty, the latter a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

The negotiations, Ned Heagerty says, took two years, partly because of Hoffman’s lack of business acumen. Yet the new owner adds that the long courtship, in which the two traveled to China numerous times, was “something wonderful.”

“The beauty was that we were drinking some of the best tea China had to offer,” Heagerty says. “Not only was it a great introduction to tea, my introduction started at the top.”

The sale, finalized in 2004, did not include the contents of the tea cave, which Hoffman attributes to Heagerty’s disinterest, and Heagerty to Hoffman’s unwillingness to part with his puers. Hoffman consulted for the new owner for a few years, but eventually parted ways.

Supposedly, he turned his focus back to the Last Resort. Instead, he returned to China to buy more tea. Hoffman says he saw the collection as an investment that could help sustain the Last Resort. “I’d rather have a good stash of puers than a stack of money,” he says. “At least with tea I can enjoy it and share it.”

In those days, puer was so cheap that he amassed 200,000 pounds of it. Many of the teas he bought, like the baskets and logs on display at the Tea Museum, were heicha, or non-Yunnanese fermented “dark teas,” which were little known even in China.

Around 2010, Hoffman started the Phoenix Collection, competing directly against the company he’d sold just six years before.

In those short few years, the Chinese puer market had changed.

In 2006 and 2007, a frenzy of speculation on puer cakes gripped China, akin to the 17th century Dutch tulip craze. Farmers picked every bud that sprouted, trying to meet the demand. Fakeries proliferated. Investors tracked the skyrocketing price of their holdings in the puer press. As Jinghong Zhang chronicled, unpressed tea from Yiwu, one of the most famous mountains, shot up from 50 to 120 Chinese yuan per kilo in 2005 to over 400 yuan ($92) in 2007. A year later, the market collapsed, and the price dropped by three-quarters.

The boom and bust, however ruinous to speculators, signaled to all of China the value that Cantonese and Taiwanese collectors had long placed on aged puer. Prices slowly rebounded, eventually surpassing the heights of the boom. Merchants now compete for the best leaves, valuing those from older, wilder trees over Communist-era plantations. As incomes in China have risen, so, too, has the Chinese market for high-end teas. “The domestic market has become my biggest competitor,” Heagerty says.

Since the boom, too, an American community of puer collectors has coalesced. “The common trajectory that people go through with tea drinking is they start on the lighter end, and then they get to dark-roasted oolongs,” says Max Falkowitz, a writer and editor at Saveur magazine. “As they’re drinking more with their bodies and appreciating the somatic and emotional effects of tea, that’s where puer starts to interest them.”

Americans, Brits, Singaporeans and Europeans — many of them in their 20s and early 30s — now discuss tea on English-language websites like Steepster as well as in Facebook groups, private Slack channels and Reddit boards. Falkowitz characterizes the online puer community as “fractious, competitive and often pedantic, but at the same time, really generous with their knowledge and experience and generous with their tea.”

A new generation of tea producers and vendors, many based in China, has arisen to supply this market, selling through their own websites or via eBay. Online, specifics are everything: which mountain a tea comes from, whether the trees came from a plantation or a semi-wild arbor, even the name of the farmer. In the case of older puers, vendors may specify whether the tea was stored in dry or humid conditions, considering how significant the effect humidity has on the taste of aged puers.

Hoffman professes ignorance of the online community, and for the most part, they ignore him, too.

The Phoenix Collection accepts orders only via telephone, but the real disconnect is in its approach to tea. Hoffman says, “You should never buy a tea you haven’t tasted.” The online community can’t visit Lagunitas.

The lack of specifics in his catalog is befuddling. Hoffman makes regular forays into the cave, excavates another haul, then figures out what he’s discovered. He doesn’t read much Chinese, so he briefly names and dates the teas based on the sketchy information he remembers about their provenance, trusting in his palate. (His palate, several people in the industry confirm, is excellent.) There is no Chinese equivalent to Hoffman’s Northern Californian tea cave, either, so only those who taste his teas in person can verify whether they are aging well.

At the same time, the Phoenix Collection’s mailing list has grown to 1,000. Chinese merchants have sniffed out his collection, too. They fly to the Bay Area to snap up choice older vintages, selling them to wealthy collectors back home for thousands of dollars.

When I visit the Last Resort for a tour, Hoffman won’t even point out where the tea cave is.

Instead, we sit on a terrace looking over his property and the wooded valley below. A breeze through the Lagunitas hills directs the wind chimes in a fairy-bell cantata. Hummingbirds buzz our ears. We can feel the vibration of their wings.

After 45 years of construction, the Last Resort resembles a village in the Himalayas, or perhaps the set of “Game of Thrones” a few weeks before filming. Buildings push against one another as if they are huddling for warmth, linked by walkways and steps that require caution to navigate. Pot shards, boards and doll heads are heaped in random corners. The canted, tiled roof of Hoffman’s unfinished magnum opus, his tea room, may dominate the view, but it’s easy to get distracted by other sights. A boat. A baby bulldozer. The Grand Pissoir, his compostable toilet, to which the county of Marin particularly objects.

Court records show that the county issued its first stop-work order in 1988. The county issued new violations in 1999, then again in 2000, 2001, 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Hoffman waved them all off. “Back then there were people in the county that loved my place,” he says. He claims when he asked the senior building inspector what he needed to do to bring the property into compliance, the guy winked and told him to get out of there.

As Hoffman tells of his fight with Marin County, a trickster theme keeps bubbling up — the wily rascal who has spent his life flouting authority in Afghanistan, China and Lagunitas. The inventor as stubborn iconoclast. The visionary, forging ahead of the law.

Those old Marin bureaucrats have all retired. Now, according to county counsel Bryan Case, the county just wants Hoffman to make his property safe.

The violations aren’t limited to bad wiring or overly steep steps. According to a December 2016 evaluation that building forensics consultant LaCroix Davis prepared on the Last Resort, the self-taught builder has constructed houses that might collapse in an earthquake and wells that might drown someone who accidentally falls in. Environmental health inspectors have also expressed concern that Hoffman’s blackwater system would contaminate a nearby watercourse and the San Geronimo Creek.

After the county court ordered Hoffman off the property in 2012 and levied $226,672 in fees — he refused to pay, he kept building — it finally appointed a receiver in 2015.

The receiver, Eric Beatty, is charged with bringing the property up to compliance, using its value to pay all fees and expenses. Some structures may need to be demolished for safety.

Hoffman claims that, with interest included, the county wants him to pay a half-million dollars and worries it could easily acquire the money by razing the land and selling it, bare. Beatty asserts that he is proceeding slowly with the evaluation and remediation. He has let Hoffman live on the property, only insisted the Phoenix Collection move off-site — hence the shop and Tea Museum down the hill.

In the meantime, hundreds of Hoffman’s supporters and neighbors have rallied around his eccentric estate. They’ve filed petitions, met with county supervisors and appealed to the county architectural commission, updating supporters through a website, They are trying to secure historic preservation status, although the property is six years short of the required 50-year mark. Another trick for the trickster.

Jo Farb Hernandez, executive director of Spaces, has joined their crusade. Spaces is a nonprofit that advocates for “folk art environments” like the Watts Towers in Los Angeles or Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria (San Luis Obispo County). The Last Resort, she argues, doesn’t just deserve to be preserved for its cultural and artistic merit. She also sees great value in Hoffman’s model of sustainability. “Given the water issues that we have in California, people have to pay attention to forward-thinkers. And forward-thinkers are often breaking the rules.”

Hoffman says that love for the planet fuels his passion for the Last Resort and his willingness to flout the law. “As much as the county is condemning my work, the fact is, (these systems) work!” he says. “I can demonstrate the usefulness of this. And it’s easily adaptable to large-scale environments.”

After fighting the county for a decade now, however, he’s exhausted. Lyme disease has shrunk his ambitions even further. “My goal is to sell off all the tea and then close the doors,” he says, staving off demolitions and evictions long enough to do it.

He has 100,000 pounds to go.

Phoenix Collection Tea Museum, 7282 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Suite 1, Lagunitas; (415) 488-9017,

Jonathan Kauffman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jonkauffman

In Hippie Holdout, a Fight Over Worms and Moats


LAGUNITAS, Calif. — To find David Lee Hoffman’s front door, take a right at the bell tower and proceed past the moat with a boat named Titanic II. Step — gingerly — through the stone tunnel, then follow the brick steps up to the Worm Palace and the breathtaking view of the Solar Power Shower Tower.

You can’t miss it.

For the last 40 years, Mr. Hoffman, 67, an entrepreneur who specializes in rare aged tea leaves, has been building a Chinese- and Tibetan-inspired compound on a steep hill in this unincorporated hippie holdover in western Marin County where the general store has a community piano and sells clothing “made with peace and love.”

The village has long prided itself on its pristine beauty and live-and-let-live attitude. But that was before the bitter dispute that pitted Mr. Hoffman, with his unconventional techniques for living in what he calls a sustainable way, against county code enforcers whose demands for permits he has repeatedly ignored.

The case, which is now in the hands of a state administrative judge, has riven his neighbors in the wooded glen they share. Until recently, the loudest voices to be heard had been only the native frogs, whose cacophony Mr. Hoffman can rouse at will by yelling “Ribet!” into the papyrus plants of his upper moat.

Mr. Hoffman, who has been called the Indiana Jones of tea, may be the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. But the county has issues with the 30 or so structures he has built over the years.

Chief among its concerns is his method of disposing and recycling waste. It is called vermicomposting, in which colonies of worms, micro-organisms and carbon-rich leaves turn waste into humus. Water from the shower and kitchen sink flow into the upper moat, along with food scraps digested in Mr. Hoffman’s copper-shingled Taj Mahal for worms. The resulting “gray water” passes through filters before being piped into the garden to nurture Peruvian potatoes, French sorrel and other vegetables.

Mr. Hoffman and his wife, Ratchanee Chaikamwung, who is known as Bee and is from Thailand, forgo soap, washing dishes with a mix of wood ash and oyster shells. In place of a conventional toilet, they use self-contained chambers with a worm-composting system. Compost privies are not allowed in Marin County.

The possibility of the moats overflowing into a nearby salmon creek is yet another concern. “We have given David notice many times about requiring construction permits,” said Debbi Poiani, the county’s senior code-enforcement specialist.

“But even through red tags, he’s just continued on his merry way,” she added, referring to the code violation stickers.

Mr. Hoffman’s pursuit of handmade teas and artisanal growers in China was the subject of a 2007 documentary, “All in This Tea,” by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, filmmakers who are documenting the rise of his compound, which he calls the Last Resort. Complete with a cave for aging Pu-erh leaves in long bamboo containers and a tea house, it is part Himalayan kingdom, part Dogpatch rife with construction debris.

“I wanted to show that there are distinctive nonpolluting ways to live on the planet,” Mr. Hoffman explained over tea and chapatis made from his heirloom wheat. “In my mind, I thought I could demonstrate to the county that these systems work.”

The county remains unconvinced: it gave the couple notice to “cease occupancy” until an approved septic system is installed and the buildings, walls and moats are brought up to code. Mr. Hoffman also faces roughly $200,000 in fines for building without permits and for running the Phoenix Collection, his latest tea business, on the premises.

To his supporters, Mr. Hoffman’s improvisational architecture is a woodsy Watts Towers, the mosaic-encrusted concrete and steel cultural landmark in Los Angeles.

Like George Lucas and the Grateful Dead, Mr. Hoffman “helps to put Marin on the map as a place of unique creativity and originality,” a neighbor, Vernon Castle, argued in a letter to the county (although Mr. Lucas is not without his own issue, having just scratched a plan to build a digital technology complex in West Marin after intense opposition).

The son of a wallpaper manufacturer, Mr. Hoffman grew up in Oakland, Calif., and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He spent a decade backpacking through Tibet, Nepal and elsewhere in Asia before settling in Marin in 1973. He started a business based on a process he invented for cleaning ancient textiles using sound vibrations. “I was cleaning pieces that were worth more than my house,” he said. “Tea was easy and quiet.”

But his fanatical construction project reflects a soft-spoken intensity. To build the tea house roof, for instance, Mr. Hoffman, who is afraid of heights, recruited former Cirque du Soleil performers to teach him how to suspend safely in midair.

He insists that he thought he had the county’s unofficial blessing. “I did what I felt was right,” he said. He added, “My love of the planet is greater than my fear of the law.”

The travails of Hoffman began when Chuck Ford, a neighbor, accused him of building over the property line. Mr. Ford said he agreed to sell the land to Mr. Hoffman for $4,000 — money he says he has yet to receive. A legal dispute played out over 17 years. “I think he honestly felt that because he wanted our property, it was rightfully his,” Mr. Ford said by e-mail.

Sim Van der Ryn, a specialist in sustainable architecture who is consulting with Mr. Hoffman, said the only way to bring the buildings into compliance would be to tear everything down.

Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor, said the affair may require some alternative thinking. “It’s an expression of complete and blatant disregard for collaborating with authorities,” he said. “But it is also the life work of a creative individual.” He added, “Marin has a history of nonconformity. We want to keep it that way.”