If environmental regulators get their way, small businessman John Thoburn will spend this Earth Day weekend in jail. The northern Virginia father of three has already been behind bars for more than two months, including a stint in solitary confinement. Did Thoburn dump raw sewage into a stream? Sprinkle asbestos in his employees' coffee? Spray DDT on unsuspecting customers?
No. Thoburn is locked up because the county government nitpicks of Fairfax, Va., didn't like the landscaping, food or music at his family-owned golf course. Call it a case of tree-hugger thuggery.
Thoburn told me in a phone interview from jail: "I'm all in favor of good stewardship of land and of the earth, but what happened to me is senseless overregulation with no public benefit." No benefit except, perhaps, to local government operators of a publicly subsidized golf course a few miles away that competes directly against Thoburn's range. His 10-year legal battle with county zoning officials over everything from trees and berms to snacks and an antique jukebox is the dictionary definition of "Kafkaesque."
On Feb. 16, at the request of Fairfax County zoning officials, a local judge cited Thoburn for contempt and threw him in jail for not planting the right trees and not building a berm at his golf park. The court had ordered Thoburn to close his driving range until he complied with the regulations. Thoburn refused. As he sleeps on a jail cell mat among drug dealers and thieves, the government continues to fine him $1,000 each day his completely legal private business remains open. When his wife was threatened with imprisonment, he moved her and his three sons to Texas.
Thoburn planted more than 700 county-mandated trees -- including beautiful red sunset maples he picked with his wife -- around his range in 1994 and completed construction of a berm over a year ago. The trees added $125,000 to the considerable costs of starting his business and jumping through all the initial regulatory hoops. Now, however, Fairfax County arbitrarily insists that Thoburn uproot and move 98 of the trees to different locations -- and that he plant 50
more trees and 124 more shrubs.
Officials also wanted him to build the berm 365 feet high, then couldn't decide if it should be 3 feet lower, Thoburn says. "It was typical bureaucracy. They write two conflicting rules and make it impossible to follow both." County officials changed their tune last month and declared that Thoburn's crime was in not filing the "proper documentation." The issue was settled while Thoburn sat in jail, but the county still insists on collecting $24,500 in fines for the non-violation violation.
Thoburn's business has been strangled in red and green tape from day one. When bureaucrats spotted an antique Wurlitzer jukebox at the range, they declared that it was illegal. Regulators slapped him with another violation for pouring Coca-Cola in cups (rather than selling them in bottles or cans) and microwaving hot dogs (instead of serving them cold, which would have brought on the health police) because that constituted illegal "food preparation." The county golf facility, on the other hand, serves beer and hot food without a second glance from regulators.
Public officials defend their treatment of Thoburn with the smugness of royalty and the zealotry of the Hezbollah. "It has nothing to do with Mr. Thoburn personally," Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman, told the Washington Times. "Our land-use process is what it is."
What it is is theft disguised as environmental do-goodism, and it continues to destroy a private family enterprise so that a competing government-run business can establish a monopoly. I asked Thoburn his thoughts on Earth Day. "Part of the problem that you get into with any movement with a noble cause," he said, "is that in the end it can be used and abused by people to overregulate other people's lives."
So be careful what your kids plant this weekend in the name of environmentalism. The tree thugs are watching.