In Hippie Holdout, a Fight Over Worms and Moats
April 22, 2012
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
THE NEW YORK TIMES
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.”