Robert L. Thornton has a vision of a shining school nuzzled into the lush woods of the Oakton area of Fairfax County. The school, as Thoburn sees it, would disturb no one, would make a little money and -- most important -- would teach the word of God.
"The school is a cause with us," Thoburn said, with a sweep of his hand to indicate his wife and children, with whom he operates the Fairfax Christian School in rented quarters on Ox Road.
John C. Campbell lives on the edge of those same woods in Oakton, just north of Fairfax City, and he has a vision, too. But in Campbell's vision, there is no school next door.
"I'm not sure that any school is acceptable to the residents of the area," said Campbell.
Today, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will decide whether Thoburn, a former Republican state legislator and three-time congressional candidate in Fairfax County, can build his school on the densely wooded 44-acre site.
While the question of whether to grant Thoburn the special zoning exception he needs to build the school at first blush turns on complex issues of land use and environmental factors, Thoburn and some of his supporters suggest that politics -- or at least competing philosophies of land use -- has entered into the equation.
Thoburn's proposal calls for a school of four brick buildings that would accommodate 480 students ranging from kindergarten through high school. He would employ 25 people at the school, which would be located at Vale Road near Hunter Mill Road.
In negotiations with county planners, he has made a number of concessions, including trimming back the size of the student body from the original proposal of 576.
The Fairfax Christian School that Thoburn wants to build at the Oakton site is already in operation, but without a permanent home. Last year, the Saudi Arabian Embassy paid Thoburn $3 million for the school's old campus, which was located on Pope's Head Road in Fairfax City since 1964.
The Saudis wanted a ready-made campus for their Islamic Saudi Academy. That forced Thoburn's school to move into rented quarters in two Baptist churches on Ox Road south of Fairfax City last academic year and to cut its enrollment to about 250.
With the money from the sale of the old school, Thoburn bought 63 acres in Oakton. Of that, he plans to use 44 acres for the school and the balance for a development of 17 single-family homes, which he said would help subsidize the school construction.
Fairfax County zoning officials reviewed Thoburn's application and recommended that county supervisors deny it because of concerns about building on a flood plain and fears that nearby streams could become polluted. They also objected to Thoburn's plan because it does not conform to the county's master plan for the area.
The site for the school is surrounded by single-family homes on generous slices of property; the smallest parcel around the school is three acres. On that basis, some citizens have said the school does not fit in. Among their allies is Providence Supervisor James M. Scott, in whose district Thoburn's property lies. "I don't know of one civic association that supports it," said Scott, a Democrat. "Just because a fellow with political clout comes in and says it's an appropriate use of the land doesn't make it so."
Scott said Thoburn's land should be developed as the land around it has been: in large lots for single-family homes.
At a public hearing before the county board a month ago, dozens of Thoburn's supporters, many of them parents of children attending his school, argued that the school should be allowed to operate at the Oakton site.
Rosemary Thoburn, Thoburn's wife, said, "This is our land. God gave it to us. I plead with you to let us use it."
Thoburn has been in touch with several of the supervisors since then, lobbying for their support when the vote on the school comes up today.
He scoffed at suggestions that the question of whether to approve the school is dominated by land-use matters. "It's pure politics," he said.
But Scott, who said he plans to vote against the plan despite Thoburn's concessions on the size of the student body, disagreed. "It is not a religious issue and it is not a political issue," he said. "It's the county's word to citizens of the county as manifested by the comprehensive plan."