How the Law Caught Up With a Marin County Visionary

Marin man's lifestyle is efficient, but he failed to apply for proper permits.

David Hoffman is not your typical outlaw. For one, every conversation veers toward the inevitable topics of conservation and sustainability. He can’t understand why people need things like septic tanks – or whey they use perfectly good drinking water to wash their cars.

It’s not Hoffman’s ideas that got him into trouble. It was the execution. Forty years of it.

Four decades ago, Hoffman started some home improvements on his house in the wooded hills of the Marin County town of Lagunitas. He harbored ideas and theories of how people could live more sustainably. He started building.

He dug a massive valley near the slope of his home and installed a pond. In the middle of it he built a concrete boat to house a 15-foot well. The groundwater would refill the pond, through a sun-powered pump.

As the owner of a tea distribution business, Hoffman also built a tea-house with ornate metal carvings of dragons and a sloped tile roof.

He carved elaborate caves to dry his rare tea leaves. He constructed a tower bearing a solar shower that hovers over a moat carrying recycled water from the house.

“Most people come here, they see the visual, they see the structures,” said Hoffman. “For me what’s important is the systems behind it.”

His systems, include a small wood box filled with earthworms, whose job it is to digest leftover food scraps, and cleanse recycled water that runs from the kitchen sink.

Another curious feature, is the sight of an outdoor toilet. For a time, Hoffman eschewed a septic system in favor of the worms taking care of the human waste.

“I have three different designs on the property for turning human manure or body waste into a valuable fertilizer,” said Hoffman.

In all, some 30 homemade structures fill the property, many partially unfinished.

“I guess you could say I had a vision,” said Hoffman. “ I had a dream.”

But Hoffman’s vision had one very fatal flaw. He never got permits for any of his projects. For over two decades, county officials red-tagged his buildings. But Hoffman carried on.

“I just build it anyway,” Hoffman said. “I figure there will be value in what I’ve done.”

But county officials didn’t see it that way. His fines have run up to over $200,000, and he’s been ordered to tear down all 30 of his illegal structures by August 1.

“David Hoffman ignored the county for twenty years,” said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey. “It came at his own peril.”

Hoffman has been locked in a legal battle with the county for years. In county reports, inspectors would return to the property to inspect previously red-tagged buildings, only to find new ones had sprouted up in the interim.

“We need rules, but we need to have people who have ideas,” reasoned Hoffman.

After repeated efforts to get Hoffman to comply, county officials referred the case to an administrative law judge in January.

“We hope the hearing officer’s decision will have a positive side by motivating David to turn over a new leaf and begin to improve his property,” wrote Marin County Community Development Agency director Brian Crawford in a statement.

Kinsey said he hopes the county can broker a deal that might allow Hoffman to keep his home. He said the county is also exploring the creation of a non-profit organization that could oversee the property.

“It would be tragic in my opinion, to see that piece of work destroyed,” said Kinsey.

Hoffman is also holding out hope he and his wife can somehow keep the property, the buildings and the ecological experiments. In the meantime, there’s a tea house to finish, a garden to plant, and the bell tower still needs wood slats to keep out the raccoons.

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