After scaling snow-capped mountains and sleeping under the stars in the Far East on his search for rare herbal tea leaves, David Lee Hoffman returned home to America to build a little piece of Tibet in the back garden of his home in Marin, California. Forty years later, what is now known as “Last Resort” is in danger of being flattened by the California authorities at any moment.
“The sheriff could come up any day now and remove us from the property, saying that the place is condemned. It’s extraordinary that I’ve lived here as long as I have and paid my taxes every year, yet now I’ve been made an outlaw,” says Hoffman, sipping from a cup of his own homemade herbal tea. At 67 years old he never expected to be embroiled in a war with the county government for building on his own land. “At this point in my life I thought I was going to be able to put the hammock out, relax a bit, and enjoy the fruits of my labor. Now I’m on the verge of losing everything.”
Last Resort is a winding hillside sub-city made up of over 30 hand-built structures including a bell tower, a tea refinery, a boat known as Titanic II sailing in what looks like a miniature bayou, and a toilet that uses worms instead of water to flush the shit away. Hoffman and his wife, Bee, even douse the plants with grimy shower water and grow their own vegetables in small self-contained marshes. Nothing goes to waste at Last Resort. Most of the buildings—from the Worm Palace to the Tibetan Temple—look like something drawn by Bill Tiller, and each brick has been laid without any concern for a building permit or planning permission.
“I guess I’ve always been a troublemaker,” he laughs. “The authorities feel like I slighted them. They’re taking this very personally. Up until now I’ve welcomed them onto my property, but now none of them can come back, because frankly I was hopeful that they’d at least take an interest in my work and ask me logical questions about how the systems operate. But when it came down to filing all their complaints against me, it was very obvious that they didn’t have even a basic understanding of what I was trying to do here.”
Crossing a stone bridge over a stream of recycled water to a 30-foot tea refining building with decorative Chinese roof tiles complete with a flat area at its peak where Hoffman and friends practice Thai Chi, it’s clear that this Mulan-esque creation has taken an incredible amount of work. The Marin County authorities have known about its gradual construction for over 30 years. According to Hoffman, some of the council members have even been in favor of it, stopping by regularly for tea and small talk.
Now, however, none of those faceless regulators stand by Last Resort in its final hour. The Marin district attorney has filed administrative action ordering Hoffman and his wife to leave. Once they do, the premises will be repossessed. Sure, he built an eco metropolis without permission and infringed on his neighbors’ land a little, which isn’t good, but why choose to destroy the whole bizarre creation? And now, after forty years, why would the judge suddenly force them out of their home? Hoffman’s theory is one based on profit, not health and safety regulations.
“I seem to have pissed someone off real bad in the county now,” he says with regret. “Our local government is really broke. Their revenue was dependent on new construction and building permits. That has dried up, and now they’re having to go after people like me in order to get an income for themselves. When I sold my last company I had to pay $418,000 in taxes—I’ve paid my share. I’ve paid into the system.”
Although some might imagine Hoffman’s conspiracy claims to be a fruitless last ditch attempt at explaining away his rebellious building work, when scratching the surface his argument does hold some weight.
In 2011 California was hit with a budget deficit of $25 billion. The wealthy county of Marin felt it, even with its many rich, neon-toothed celebrity residents like Brad Pitt and George Lucas. (The latter was confronted with furious opposition by a homeowners association when he tried to build a low-budget housing estate. The association was ultimately allowed to bypass laws in order to reform quickly enough to put the stoppers on the project.) Since the budget shortfall there have been several reports of corruption and extortion amongst Marin bigwigs at the Supreme Court, including claims that the “progressive liberal” state pulls in ethnic minorities at will to fine them harshly.
One man told of how he was charged and fined after allegedly not coming to a full stop at a stop sign. The judge, he claimed, was in fact not a judge at all, but a stand-in lawyer acting as one. Apparently Jeanne Mann (the judge/lawyer hybrid) repeatedly refused to accept his insurance documents in a bid to hit him with the heaviest fine she could muster. He claimed 80 percent of the people waiting in line were of an ethnic background, and that even penniless prisoners were being brought in and fined for pending offences.
California and Marin are also pretty terrible when it comes to budget transparency. Why? Who knows, it’s almost as if the authorities there are trying to bolthole their cash away by extorting it from civilians...
Despondent, Hoffman looks into the tea leaves swimming at the bottom of his China cup and says: “I’m in a dilemma now. Do I abandon my work and let them tear everything down? Sure, I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but I’ve also discovered some very basic things that will contribute to the health and sanity of our planet. I tried 40 years ago to get permits to experiment with testing these ideas, but I couldn’t get anywhere near them because it didn’t fit in with the system at the time. For example, purifying the rain water that comes down my driveway is illegal now. Had I known I’d need permits for this stuff, I never would have settled here.”
David Lee Hoffman and Bee are now living day to day, not knowing when the sheriff might roll up to their hand-crafted front door and tell them to get out.
“I’ve traveled in over a hundred countries, but I chose to live here because I love it here and this is where I want to be. Now I see another side to my country. People should pay more attention to what is providing beauty and richness.”
Forget building permits and regulations, Hoffman has created sustainable living quarters for himself, using incredible feats of makeshift architecture in the process. Last Resort is a work of art and a testament to the wily free spirit of a guy not afraid to stick it to the man. Long live the Last Resort, worms and all.
Photos by David Briggs