Man Jailed After Zoning Officials Renege on Where He Should Plant Trees

By National Center for Public Pol... | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

(Editor's Note: The following is the 85th of 100 stories regarding government regulation from the book Shattered Dreams, written by the National Center for Public Policy Research. will publish an additional story each day.)

John Thoburn owns a driving range for golfers in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

To bring him into compliance with local zoning ordinances, Thoburn was ordered by Fairfax County officials to plant more than 700 trees on his driving range in 1994 at a cost of over $125,000. Before he planted the trees, Thoburn asked the official Fairfax County arborist to approve the location of the trees and received such approval.

However, the Fairfax County Zoning Administrator later determined that some of the trees were in the "wrong" location. Zoning officials subsequently demanded that Thoburn move 98 of the trees to different locations. Since he had obtained prior government approval for the placement of the trees, Thoburn refused to move them. He was consequently convicted of contempt of court and sent to jail for over three months.

According to a letter written by Thoburn during his imprisonment, he said that - even though he was being detained for the alleged landscaping violations - the zoning officials still hadn't told him exactly which trees were in the wrong location. After a lengthy court battle, evidence was presented in court that showed Thoburn's compliance with the new zoning order was both financially and physically impossible. By this time, Thoburn had already been imprisoned for 98 days and was being fined $1,000 per day. "If I can be jailed for not moving trees, do I really possess my property? There are many ways to take away property rights," said Thoburn.

The story does not end with Thoubrn's release. After allowing his release from jail, the judge granted the county's request to enter Thoburn's property and complete the planting they desired. This was done the next day, and county officials presented Thoburn with the bill - nearly $40,000, which became a lien against his property. Today, Thoburn is seeking to rezone his property in the hope of selling it to pay his legal bills.

Source: Defenders of Property Rights

Copyright 2003, National Center for Public Policy Research