WHAT TO MAKE of tea entrepreneur David Lee Hoffman's condemned San Geronimo Valley experiment in sustainable living, his Asian-inspired compound with its solar power shower tower, its worm palace, its boat in a moat, its compost toilets and gran pissoir?
Is it an art installation or an eyesore, a bold experiment in alternative living or a public health hazard? Is it to be razed or praised?
Those are some of the questions facing the 68-year-old Hoffman and the Marin County officials whose stop-work orders and red tags he has blithely ignored for the past 40 years as he built his funky Himalayan-style kingdom on a Lagunitas hillside without benefit of official government permits, in blatant violation of county codes and environmental health regulations.
And now, at a time when he would like to retire to a hammock that he's been saving for his golden years, the aging Indiana Jones of tea has been ordered by an administrative law judge to pay more than $226,000 in fines and to tear down the 30 or so exotic structures that are his life's work.
"I understand their concerns. We can't have a lawless society where people do whatever they want," he admits one recent morning at his home, which holds the distinction of being one of the most unusual, and illegal, dwellings in Marin. "But my concern for the planet is far greater than my fear of breaking the law."
Hoffman began building as a young man whose motivation was to explore alternative ways of living that wouldn't be wasteful or polluting.
"In an ideal world, there is no waste," he says.
To demonstrate his "vermicompost" system, he pulls a handful of squirming worms out of their miniature tea house, showing how they turn discarded vegetable matter and kitchen scraps into rich humus for fertilizer.
County health officers are horrified by the moat Hoffman has dug beside his house, which he uses to store "gray water" from sinks and showers for re-use in the garden and for other household tasks. They fear it's a breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease-carrying pests. But Hoffman points out three different kinds of frogs that thrive in the greenish water, and he contends that the mosquitoes who lay their eggs there are not the kind that bite.
"This is all about recycling, about turning your waste into something useful," he explains. "It's about not using purified drinking water to flush our toilets, wash our cars, hose down our sidewalks or even water the garden. The whole world is thirsty for clean water, and we lavish it wastefully on those things. So this is about putting systems into place as an experimental model."
Accusing health inspectors of "fecal phobia," he laments that an outdoor composting toilet, illegal in Marin County, is no longer in use, that he's been forced to go back to his original septic tank system.
But county officials, whose patience has worn thin, are no longer willing to allow Hoffman to keep doing what he's been doing since he settled on the wooded property in 1973.
"He's using systems that are way out there from even the alternative mainstream," says Tom Lai, assistant director of the county's community development agency, accusing Hoffman of making "severe unconventional modifications" to his property.
While conceding that some of his more artistic creations are "incredible," such as a full-size replica of a fishing boat suspended in a pond of green rainwater, Armando Alegria, supervising environmental health specialist for the county, brands Hoffman as a "rogue" builder who has risked contaminating the aquifer with sewage and polluting nearby creeks and streams with wastewater, endangering the health and safety of the environment and his neighbors in the rural valley community.
"Those conditions in my professional opinion are a public health hazard," Alegria said.
Hoffman expects to be penalized for his transgressions, but he's shocked by the severity of the recent administrative law judgment. He's appealed the decision, and a court hearing has been set for Sept. 10.
"It would be an absolute shame if they tore everything down just because I didn't have a permit," he says. "I would rather they view this property as an asset to Marin County, as an asset to the schools and to environmental education."
That said, the fight to keep their home and their lifestyle has taken its toll on him and his Thailand-born wife, Bee. Fees for lawyers and other legal expenses have drained his finances and retirement savings.
Before he went public with his battle against the county, Hoffman enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame when filmmaker Les Blank chronicled his decade-long quest for organic tea growers in China in the 2007 documentary "All in This Tea."
A short, wiry man, Hoffman stacks rocks to keep in shape and for his mental health, but he admits that he isn't getting any younger. He sold his original tea business years ago, but has had to start another one, which he calls the Phoenix Collection, just to keep body and soul together.
"I think we're both longing for a little peace in our lives," he sighs as he brews tea in an iron pot hanging from a chain above a wood fire in a stone pit, the first thing he built when he moved here four decades ago. "This whole thing has been really wearing us out. I'm either going to lose the place to lawyers, to the county or to the bank. I'm working as hard as I can, but I'm getting old. My body's giving out. I can't do the work I used to do and I can't see a way out of this."
But county Supervisor Steve Kinsey can.
Living nearby for many years, Kinsey has watched Hoffman's environmentally correct Scotty's Castle take shape in a community that has been home to many people from the '60s generation who welcome unconventional lifestyles and new ways of looking at the world. Some of them have even been employed by Hoffman on various construction projects on the two-acre property since the early 1970s.
Kinsey mentions Christo's famed Running Fence through West Marin as a metaphor for Hoffman's grand creation, seeing it as a similar kind of art installation, only permanent.
Without excusing Hoffman's disregard for the law, Kinsey admits that it's a complicated situation, but he's looking for a way to get his fine reduced to a more manageable amount, to allow him and his wife to keep their home, to preserve the structures that are safe to preserve and to have a third party come in and manage the property as a community resource, as "an artistic expression of core values."
"He's poured his heart and soul into that place," Kinsey says. "If we crush his life's work, what would we gain? I'm trying to find a way to let it to be, to stand as the heartfelt artistic expression of a creative guy."