Another Regulation Conundrum

My previous post centered on regulations to force bloggers to disclose seemingly small-fry issues, like whether they were comped with an ebook for reviewing independently published authors.

Thursday’s paper ran a story from the New York Times on a more weighty and poignant regulatory issue.  The article, “Marin County battles hippie holdout,” tells of David Lee Hoffman, an entrepreneur of artisan teas, who designed and built 30 structures during the 40 years he lived on a rural hillside.  Inspired by youthful treks through Tibet and Nepal, Hoffman, 67, and his wife, Ratchanee, have tried to create a sustainable, non-polluting, homestead.  In the process, by ignoring repeated notices of violations of county building codes, they racked up $200,000 in fines and have just been ordered to vacate their home until the violations are fixed. The case is now before a judge.

photo by Jim Wilson, New York Times

The Hoffman homestead contains such fanciful structures as the Worm Palace, a Solar Power Shower Tower, and a moat, which is integral to recycling household water.  One of the county’s chief concerns is their method for disposing of human waste, which uses worm colonies to help turn human waste into humus.  Composting toilets are not legal in Marin.  The county also says it’s worried about an excess of rain, which could flood the moat and send the gray water into nearby creeks.

Hoffman says, “I did what I felt was right.  My love of the planet is greater than my fear of the law.”


There’s nothing simple about the regulations that govern our lives, and many of them serve us well.  I like clean water and knowing the content of the food I eat.  I want pure aspirin when I have a headache, and I want to trust the odometer when I shop for a used car.  If I buy a hot dog during a ballgame, I don’t want to have to think , of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.  And I might not want to live downstream from the night soil in the Hoffmans’ garden.

And yet…

Most of us know, in the corners of our awareness, that many of our problems are beyond the capacity of our current institutions.  We know that business as usual is part of the problem.  That regulators do not create solutions.  As Einstein said, “One cannot alter a condition with the same mind that created it in the first place.”

How do we enable people like the Hoffmans, willing to devote their lives to imagining new ways of living?  If we fine and evict people for living their dreams, pretty soon we’re going to run short of dreamers.

7 thoughts on “Another Regulation Conundrum

  1. It’s a very fine line, isn’t it? But generally, California seems to have walked it pretty well over the years. We used to have a kind of mantra in our house that it’s always important to have rules, so that you can make exceptions to them. it’s trickier with government.


    • Not only do these issues have fine lines, but time is a factor too.

      I was reading in Time Magazine a while back, an account of government moves toward more and less regulation of financial institutions since the 50’s.
      At the start of the Reagan era, there was a huge shift toward deregulation, and the timing was just right: this move allowed easy access to venture capitol for all the tech startups and contributed to a 20 year boom.

      At the start of the last decade, financial deregulation led to the disaster that is still in progress.

      I think at this time we would be best served by loosening restrictions on developing green modes of living. A future post may give some concrete examples.


  2. Lots to think about here. My brother-in-law and his wife, old hippies, live on a mountaintop in Colorado in a solar-heated house the built themselves. They are not as extreme as the Hoffmans, but zoning probably isn’t part of their lives. It’s the pioneering spirit found often in this country, and I get that, but with 350 million souls or so in the US, we have to have laws to protect us. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Hoffmans.


    • As a kid, I was fascinated by the mountain men, and convinced I was born too late.

      Some ten years ago I read a good account of the mountain men. Many of them were proto-hippies, and several left very articulate journals, but their life isn’t one I would envy now. Among other things, a poor life expectancy, with the risk of running into a grizzly, plus spending hours in freezing streams every day, checking all the beaver traps.


  3. While the line between freedom and necessary regulations is difficult, I tend to lean more towards libertarian concepts, where as long as you aren’t harming me, anyone else, or the environment (which effects everyone ultimately) you should be allowed to do as you please. As far as the Hoffman’s (I read this story when it was published as well), I think the local government needs to really look at the harm caused, or could foreseeably be caused, before determining what remedies or fines (if any) are appropriate. 1) if the structures are built shoddily, and only endangering himself, then no harm no foul, if an earthquake happens, he will be the only one effected. 2) If the septic system is leaking, or could leak, which would harm others or the environment, then he should be forced to comply with some sort of regulation because he is, or at least could be, harming others or the environment. As always, this is a great and thought provoking piece. Thanks for sharing!


    • I’d love to see the regulators send some university people out to sample the chemistry of the Hoffman’s recycling efforts – test it for microbes or whatever the measure is, but realistically, with county budgets falling, and the examiners probably already at 150% of their capacity, I don’t expect this to happen. I suspect it all starts out as paperwork – both the Hoffman’s and the apartment manager cited for substandard plumbing, and the people sifting through it probably don’t have much time for special cases.

      I remember a program some time ago on the Learning Channel, I think, about an architect who built an entire neighborhood with like minded souls, out of recycled materials, and they did it so well they were able to use largely passive solar and a bit of firewood to heat their homes outside Taos, NM, at 9000′. In this case, the power company was one of the first to call the inspectors.

      In the Hoffman’s case, perhaps they can play the 15 min of fame game. If they’re in the NY Times, why not 60 Minutes? Bet they wouldn’t get evicted after that.

      Sad that that’s what might take to legitimize innovation.


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