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Rights Are on the Line at Range

A typical sunny day at the Golf Park at Hunter Mill

Washington Post Guest Column

Fairfax County officials jailed landowner and political activist John M. Thoburn on February 16, 2001, accusing him of violating court orders to maintain his Reston golf driving range. County officials acknowledged it was rare to jail someone over a zoning matter, but they said Thoburn, 43, had failed to plant the required number of trees and shrubs on the driving range. What follows is Thoburn's view, written from his jail cell.

I find myself a political prisoner. I've been jailed for operating a legal business on my own property. So much for trying to live the American Dream of being a small business owner.

Fairfax County had me jailed and is fining me $1,000 a day on trumped-up charges for not building a berm and planting trees at my Golf Park, a driving range on Hunter Mill Road.

Anyone who drives the Dulles Toll Road can see the finished berm which has been completed for over a year.

To get my occupancy permit, I planted over 700 trees around the range at a cost of $125,000 in 1994. But now Fairfax County demands that 98 trees be moved to different locations, despite prior inspections and approvals. Moving the trees provides no public benefit but would waste thousands of dollars and damage the trees.

Rational people scratch their heads.

The berm is a Catch-22. Two contradictory zoning conditions require two different heights. After I've spent 30 days in jail, Fairfax County still refuses to say which berm height they want. And they still haven't told me exactly which trees are in the wrong location and need to be moved.

I have a wife and three children to feed. I have a mortgage to pay. I can't afford to close my business until Fairfax County bureaucrats get around to making their arbitrary zoning decisions.

This zoning harassment has been going on for years. One zoning regulation for Golf Park prohibits a jukebox from being "present on the property." A stereo is legal; an antique Wurlitzer is not.

Some of the beautiful trees
already planted at the Golf Park

Another zoning regulation allows a "snack food concession." Yet Fairfax County issued a zoning violation for selling hot dogs and Cokes. They say we can sell pre-wrapped roast beef deli sandwiches, but not microwave hot dogs. We can sell Coca-Cola in a bottle or can, but not in a cup. Meanwhile my competitors, the Fairfax County golf facilities, have carte blanche from the county to sell beer and pizza.

And how did Fairfax County handle the official who wrote such nonsensical regulations? He's been promoted to county attorney and leads the prosecution of my case. The county has petitioned the court to put my wife in jail as well. I've had to move my family out of state for safekeeping.

Appealing all this in court would take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Justice is for sale, but I cannot afford it
particularly after Fairfax County opened a competing golf driving range, which took away a third of my business.

Property rights are human rights. Fairfax County's own George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted in 1776. It guarantees Virginians "certain inherent rights," including "the means of acquiring and possessing property."

Imagine a zoning ordinance requiring you to plant a particular type of tree around your house, then the government jailing you and ordering you to vacate your home until you comply. That is what they have done to me and my business. Watch out, the "tree police" can get you next.

If I can be jailed for not moving trees, do I really possess my property? There are many ways to take away property rights. My three children are part Cherokee Indian. Their ancestors were forcibly removed from their property on the Trail of Tears. Have we learned anything in America? Are we really more civilized?

Whether it is jukeboxes, trees or hot dogs, Fairfax County has shamelessly trampled my constitutional property rights. At this point, it's time for a signed apology from the entire Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

John M. Thoburn

This article appeared in the Washington Post as a guest column
Thursday, March 15, 2001; Page VA04
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