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Tee Time
Fairfax Journal
Wednesday, April 11, 2001

JOHN THOBURN WENT to jail on Feb. 16 on contempt of court charges for allegedly violating a Fairfax County zoning ordinance.

He's still there. But the tide may be turning for the Reston golf driving range owner, who fancies himself a political prisoner.

His sister-in-law, who's running the range during his involuntary absence, says the family received a letter on Monday from the Assistant County Attorney Pat Tayes.

Jo Thoburn says the county now admits that a huge earthern berm, which Thoburn was ordered to build to block light from entering homes being built behind his property, might actually be the right height after all.

The Thoburns hauled in 5,000 truckloads of dirt to construct the berm after the Board of Zoning Appeals ruled it had to be high enough to shield second-story windows. Fair enough.

But, Jo Thoburn told The Journal, the county refused to approve the completed berm, leading to a hilarious court appearance in which they were ordered to build a berm they already had.

Then the Thoburns were required to certify the height of the berm. So they did, hiring a Sterling aerial surveying firm, which certified that the highest point was exactly 365.9 feet above sea level.

The county then demanded a topographical map, but didn't like the precise geological point the surveying company used to ascertain sea level, and ordered the drill again.

Then there are the trees. The first county arborist recommended the family move some of the 700 trees they had planted around the driving range perimeter, at a cost of $125,000, to better screen the nearby residential area.

The Thoburns complied, afraid the arborist wouldn't sign off on their plans. But the next arborist claimed her predecessor's recommendations violated the site plans, so they were ordered to move already-planted trees and to plant shrubs under decking.

If the shrubs die from lack of sunlight, the Thoburns will have to replace them, as well as 54 trees felled by dogwood blight and hungry deer.

"The county just wants to close our business," Jo Thoburn claims. It's a persuasive argument when she points out that the nearby county-owned Oak Marr driving range has a generator, putt-putt golf and a nine-hole executive course, all items the Thoburns were not allowed to install.

The county doesn't make itself put in berms or plant 700 trees either.

Jo Thoburn says local residents are so incensed over Thoburn's incarceration that business at his driving range has actually picked up. Outraged golfers are calling their supervisors to complain. There's even a Thoburn defense fund.

"A lot of people say they're going to golf here now," Jo Thoburn noted. "They can't believe somebody could go to jail for such nonsense."

Next week, the family hopes, a judge will finally free John Thoburn, as well as dismiss $24,500 in fines he incurred while the county was trying to figure out how to measure sea level.

While he's at it, the judge should also tee off on county officials for abuse of power, harassment and conflict of interest.
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