WASHINGTON – While it's not uncommon to hear news stories about local zoning boards run amok, one Northern Virginia board has jailed a golf-range owner and possibly made an interstate fugitive of his wife in an ongoing fight over what may ultimately boil down to the placement of a few trees.
Fox News has been following the story of John Thoburn, the owner of a golf range in Fairfax County, Va., who is sitting in jail on contempt-of-court charges for failure to comply with zoning regulations.
"I'm here in jail for the right to operate my business on my property," he told Fox News Channel. "It's private property. I'm defending property rights."
He's been in there 53 days and counting.
One of the things the board wanted changed was a man-made hill just behind the range, which measures at 365 feet. Originally, the board insisted it was too low. Then it said it was too high. Finally, it decided the perfect height of the hill: 365 feet.
But the hill dispute still isn't over. The Thoburns have been presented with a bill for fines imposed on them even though the board members decided the hill was the right height all along.
"They are still wanting us to pay $24,500 in fines while we sat around waiting for them to decide if the height is okay," said Jo Thoburn, John Thoburn's sister-in-law who is now running the range.
The board also slapped Thoburn with more fines because he kept the range open during a dispute over trees. Thoburn planted 700 trees, but 92 are in the wrong place, according to the board. In one instance, the board niggled over two cherry trees because it complained that there ought to have been 10 in a certain cluster, not eight, Jo Thoburn said.
"They are just playing games," she said. "The county is absolutely just playing games. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law sits in jail."
The county says that the golf range can't simply ignore landscape requirements.
A local judge is expected to hear the tree dispute sometime in the next two weeks.
Property-rights lawyer Roger Marzulla said it was a clear example of a heavy-handed government trampling over an individual's rights.
"This is just one of those situations where the authority of government officials has gone to their head and they've totally lost perspective on how to solve this problem," he said.
The pricey dispute with the local government has the Thoburn family in disarray. John Thoburn says his wife even fled to Texas so the county couldn't hold her in contempt as well.
The county said she was never a target for prosecution.
"There has been no threat against Ms. Thoburn whatsoever," Fairfax County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said.
But court documents showing the board tried to haul his wife to jail as well suggest otherwise. Fitzgerald said she was unaware of the documents or the attempt to jail her.
— Fox News' Michael Park contributed to this report
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