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Zone On the Range

Monday, March 26, 2001
By David Shuster
Fox News

Workers planting trees in 1994
at the Golf Park at Hunter Mill

FAIRFAX, Va. — John Thoburn owns a golf-range business in suburban Washington, but he now spends his days and nights in jail among thieves and hardened criminals.

The Fairfax County, Va., zoning board claims Thoburn planted some trees improperly on his golf range, a charge he denies. Thoburn refused to comply when the board ordered him to move some of the trees in question, so it ordered him to shut down his range.

Thoburn refused, so last month a Fairfax County judge threw him in jail on contempt-of-court charges. Nicknamed "Shrub" by his fellow inmates, he has been locked up for 38 days and counting.

"I would equate [jail time] to sleeping on the floor next to the urinal in a public restroom," Thoburn told Fox News. "I'm here in jail for the right to operate my business on my property. It's private property. I'm defending property rights."

Thoburn says that he has already spent $125,000 on 700 trees mandated by the zoning board. But the board is demanding that 30 trees be moved alongside the property boundary between the range the nearest homeowner's land to create a protective screen. In an interesting twist, however, that neighbor is John Thoburn's father, Bob, who says the landscape requirement is ridiculous.

Workers planting trees on the
outer perimeter of the Golf Park

"They want ... my children to screen their own property from their own property. We own all the property across the street, too, every bit of it. So, it doesn't make any sense," Bob Thoburn said.

In an escalation of the battle, the zoning board has also targeted a man-made hill behind the range for regulation.The board says the hill is the wrong height. But according to John Thoburn, the board refuses to tell him what height it wants.

The county earlier took issue with cups being provided along with soft drinks at the range, so the board banned cups at the range. Only cans are now allowed.

The board has also regulated the use of lights at Thoburn's range, as well as the inclusion of miniature golf and putting greens. All told, the county has imposed 25 conditions on Thoburn over nine years.

But it's a different story a few miles away at the Oakmar range, which was built and is run by Fairfax County. Unlike Thoburn's range, there have been no requirements to add trees, no restrictions on lights and no prohibitions against miniature golf or putting greens. And in the clubhouse, cups are provided for soft drinks or coffee.

The county insists there is no double standard at play.

"Every case is individually studied and analyzed by the board of zoning appeals and conditions are placed on various projects in order to make it work within the community," said county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald.

According to Thoburn, the county is trying to steal his customers and close down his business. The zoning board denies that charge, but adds it will press to keep Thoburn in jail for as long as he refuses to comply with its orders.

As the fight continues, Thoburn's sister runs the range. Thoburn's wife would have taken care of the business, but since she too was threatened with a jail sentence, she and their three sons fled to Texas.

There may be an end in sight, however. A local judge has ordered the county to submit its requirements for the height of the hill behind the range and any other zoning rules this week in an attempt to adjudicate .

— Fox News' Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report
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