‘Shrub Man’ out of jail

Published October 1, 2001

John Thoburn, the “Shrub Man” of Reston, Virginia who was sent to jail for violating zoning ordinances on the planting of trees, has been released from jail but must sell part of his golf range to cover his mounting legal expenses.

Thoburn spent three months in a Fairfax County jail for refusing to plant the requisite number and pattern of eight-foot evergreen trees on his property. Prior to being imprisoned, Thoburn contended the ordinance would substantially interfere with the driving range he had previously built on his property.

A judge agreed to release Thoburn from jail upon his consent to have the county plant 200 trees on his property. Ironically, when the county was entrusted to plant the trees, they did not follow their own zoning ordinance. Thoburn pointed out that aside from planting the trees in a location and manner that seemed purposefully designed to interfere with his business, the county failed to abide by its own eight-foot height requirement. Instead of the stately tall pines prescribed by the zoning ordinance, the county itself planted squat, stumpy trees throughout his property.

“One of the hardest things for me every day when I come out here now is to see the little short Christmas trees the county planted in absolutely ludicrous positions,” stated Thoburn.

After Thoburn pointed out the county failed to abide by the very ordinance it cited in sending him to jail, the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning replied, “The mere fact that some of the trees planted by the county may not have been the precise height of the trees listed on the landscaping plan for the subject property is not materially significant. . . . Exact precision is not required with regard to the location of particular trees, especially on a large property.”

Now $80,000 in debt, Thoburn decided to sell much of his property after the government followed up with still another action against him. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has announced that, for reasons allegedly unrelated to his past efforts to assert his property rights, it plans to confiscate part of the property to build an exit ramp for a nearby highway. Thoburn says he does not have the money to fight yet another government effort to interfere with his property.

“We have to look to selling some property. We really don’t have any choice,” stated Thoburn. “With VDOT taking the corner where I wanted to [build a] batting cage and miniature golf [course], there is no way that I will ever be able to realize that dream here. So it’s really prudent for me to look at alternatives in terms of selling the property at this point.”

According to Thoburn, the various government actions have amounted to “a lot of double talk and a lot of hypocrisy . . . they really weren’t interested in following the rules or the law. It was simply a way of beating up on a small businessman they don’t like.”