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On The Front Lines

Property Rights: Rutherford Institute Sues Virginia County Over Landowner’s Right to Entertain Friends on 86-Acre Farm for Overnight Hunting Trips

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. — Citing the right of property owners to have a certain amount of sovereignty over what takes place on their own property, The Rutherford Institute has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Virginia landowner who was prohibited from allowing a friend to camp on his 86-acre farm for a hunting excursion.

In prohibiting landowner Joseph R. Ferguson, Jr., from allowing a friend to stay overnight in a camper parked on his farm, officials with Isle of Wight County claimed that use of the camper would constitute an unauthorized “campground” in violation of local zoning ordinances. Coming to Ferguson’s defense, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked the Circuit Court of Isle of Wight County to reject the County’s misinterpretation of the law and recognize Ferguson’s right to lawfully use his property as he sees fit.

“Cases such as this one are becoming increasingly common across the country as overzealous government officials routinely enforce laws that undermine the very property rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution,” said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Whether you’re talking about laws that prohibit smoking a cigarette inside one’s apartment, hosting a Bible study in one’s backyard, or growing organic vegetables in one’s front yard, the government’s ongoing disregard for private property brings us full circle, back to that pre-Revolutionary era when colonists had few to no rights whatsoever within their homes.”

Joseph Ferguson, an avid outdoorsman, occasionally hosts friends for lawful hunting excursions on his 86-acre farm in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, which is zoned for agricultural use, is primarily wooded, and is used for agricultural and forestry purposes. In 2011, Ferguson allowed a disabled friend to bring an Outback RV Trailer onto the farm to stay in overnight during occasional weekend hunting excursions. The trailer was placed 170 feet from the public road abutting the farm, and attached to preexisting water, sewer and electricity connections. The friend stayed in the RV trailer in order to avoid disruption of Ferguson’s home with the comings and goings associated with hunting, in particular the early hours and mess.

In October 2011, Ferguson received a letter from the County advising him that his property had been inspected in response to a complaint, and asserting that the presence of the trailer violated a County ordinance prohibiting the use of recreational vehicles as “residences.” Moreover, Ferguson was informed by a County official that the trailer could not be used as living quarters and that its use constituted maintenance of an unauthorized “campground.”

After appeals to the County Board of Supervisors went unheeded, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute intervened, filing suit against the County in circuit court on the grounds that Ferguson’s placement and use of the trailer did not violate the law because the noncommercial use of the trailer did not constitute establishment of a “campground,” and the temporary occupancy of the trailer did not constitute use of the trailer as a “residence.” Institute attorneys are also seeking a declaration from the court that Ferguson has a right to use his property for occasional camping by himself, his family and friends.

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