Zoning Defiance Keeps `Shrubman' in Jail

Article excerpt

Reston golf range owner John Thoburn - a self-proclaimed political prisoner known as "the Shrubman" - will spend his 60th day in jail today for defying the county and its landscaping dictates.

Mr. Thoburn, 43, locked in a long dispute with Fairfax County over berms, shrubs and trees, would rather dwell among drug dealers and thieves at the local jail than close his 46-acre Golf Park at Hunter Mill, as a judge has ordered.

"If I don't have any freedom on the outside, there's no point in getting out," Mr. Thoburn said in a phone interview from the county jail.

County officials are perfectly willing to let him sit there in contempt of court, while fining Mr. Thoburn's business $1,000 a day until it comes into compliance.

He claims he is being harassed by an overbearing government that wants to shut down a major competitor to its own facility a few miles away. They insist he chooses to obey some laws and ignore others.

"It has nothing to do with Mr. Thoburn personally," said Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman. "Our land-use process is what it is."

But the longer this stalemate wears on, the more support the Shrubman drums up.

"Thoburn's guilty of nothing," said Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio. "It's not a criminal matter when someone disobeys a zoning edict. That's cruel and unusual punishment they're subjecting a landowner to."

Said sister-in-law Jo Thoburn: "It's basically David versus Goliath."

The case has garnered attention from Brazilian and Portuguese television stations and the sympathy of a D.C.-based property-rights watchdog group.

"Save the Shrubman," reads a headline at the Internet home page of Defenders of Property Rights (www.defendersproprights.org), an organization that fights "overzealous regulations" through education and litigation.

The group has taken on Mr. Thoburn's case - and started a defense fund - citing abuse of power, of property rights and even of religious freedom, stemming from allegations that he is being targeted for his Christian beliefs.

"Our first obligation is to get him out of jail," said the organization's president, Nancie Marzulla. Mr. Thoburn's family has asked for an April 20 hearing.

Ms. Marzulla said she decided to take the case from the stacks of requests because "it so well illustrates how local government can be wildly out of control."

The Thoburns have been going at it with the county for years, prompting one observer to compare the two parties to the Hatfields and McCoys.

Ms. Fitzgerald said Mr. Thoburn made the first mistake by trying to build a golf range in an area zoned as "low-density residential."

"He had no right to put a commercial business on that land," she said.

The county gave in, Ms. Fitzgerald said, and granted Mr. Thoburn a permit nine years ago - accompanied by some two dozen conditions regulating such things as lighting and hours of operations.

Through the years, the two sides have disagreed over everything from planting violations to jukebox violations. …