The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this week deferred until July 8 a final decision on a controversial special exception that would allow a popular private Christian school to build new facilities in a residential area of Oakton.
After hours of emotional appeals for approval and equally emotional cries for denial of an application by former Virginia state legislator Robert Thoburn to relocate Fairfax Christian School to 37 acres at Vale Road near Hunter Mill Road, the board in a close vote decided to put off a decision for a month.
Supervisor James Scott, within whose magisterial district the proposed school would be located, only wanted the decision deferred for a week.
Several board members reminded those testifying at the public hearing before a standing-room-only crowd that the issue was a question of land use, not a vote on the quality of education provided by Fairfax Christian School or on the role of private or church schools in Fairfax.
However, some of the region's most outspoken members of the fundamentalist Christian movement pleaded with supervisors to approve the school.
The proposal calls for construction of a school for 576 students in kindergarten through senior high on land planned for low-density residential development. Thoburn also is asking in a separate application to build 18 homes clustered on 21 acres adjacent to the school site. Both parcels involved were once part of an old Oakton farm known as Hannah Farm.
Residents of the relatively rural neighborhoods that surround the area around Hunter Mill and Vale roads pleaded with supervisors to protect the rural character of their home sites. They complained that existing roads could not support traffic that would be generated by the proposed school.
Thoburn's wife, Rosemary, told the board denial of the proposal would be "opening up a can of worms" it would not want to open.
"This is our land; God gave it to us. I plead with you to let us use it," she said.
Board Chairman Jack Herrity read a letter from Ronald W. Koch, his appointee to the county's planning commission, which said Koch felt "the applicant was not treated fairly" during public hearings by the planning commission on the proposal. The planning commission voted to recommend that the project be denied by the board of supervisors. The county planning staff also has recommended that both the school and residential development be denied.
Thoburn said he thought "the site is quite suitable for both uses." He said the land is close to Reston, I-66 and the Vienna area.
Thoburn said traffic generated by the school would have less of an impact on Hunter Mill Road and other roads than residential development built in accordance with the county's long-range plan for the area.
Thoburn said those who protest the location of the school fail to recognize that "all schools are in residential neighborhoods."
Fairfax Christian School now has an enrollment of approximately 250, but Thoburn predicted increased demands could push the maximum to 576. He said the ideal size for a school to operate properly is about 500 students. Fairfax Christian now operates out of a rented facility in two church buildings.
However, for almost 20 years, Fairfax Christian occupied facilities on 34 acres on Popes Head Road. Thoburn sold that site for an undisclosed amount to the Islamic Saudi Academy, a private school, in 1983. That purchase was financed by the Saudi government.
Supervisor Audrey Moore asked Thoburn, "Why didn't you stay there at the Popes Head Road site ?"
"If you were given the opportunity to make two or three times your assets," you probably would do it, replied John Thoburn, one of Thoburn's sons. "It wasn't an easy thing to do," he said.
Moore said she was worried about the proposed school because "it is a commercial use."
Fairfax Christian is a profit-making school paying taxes, but Robert Thoburn said he would be willing to go to a nonprofit status if that would help get the school facility approved.
"You yourself are a prime example of violating the use of a school building," John Thoburn told Moore. He was referring to the fact that her governmental offices within her district are located in part of a school building no longer needed for classrooms.
Moore asked if Thoburn would agree to covenants requiring that the land revert to low-density residential status if it were not developed as the proposed school, but she never got a direct answer to her question.
John Campbell, chairman of the Greater Oakton Citizens Association, said his group voted unanimously to oppose the project. He said that vote was based on issues of land use and transportation. He said traffic at Hunter Mill and Vale is "at best a precarious situation and at worst a dangerous situation."
Those who oppose the granting of the land-use changes also asked the board to protect their single-family homes. Verlin Smith, a 40-year resident of the area, said land for low-density housing "is disappearing." Smith asked Thoburn to look for a site for the school that could be served by sewer rather than septic fields because of long-range environmental impacts. The site is not served by sewer and the school would have to depend on a septic system.
Oakton area residents months ago asked Fairfax County to complete an overall study of transportation problems in the area. Residents complain the Oakton area is being choked by traffic from Tysons Corner, Fairfax City, Vienna and Reston.
Hunter Mill Road is a two-lane rural road that the county has fought hard to maintain that way over the years, according to Supervisor Martha Pennino.
Albert Kasabian, who lives on six acres adjoining the Thoburn site, said the school plan and the residential plan were "not in harmony" with county land-use plans for the area.
Residents presented traffic studies prepared by private consultants that differed from those submitted by the applicant.
Supervisor Scott said, "We have two different opinions from different experts."
Jack Leonard, owner of 11 acres abutting the Thoburn site, said the "application will change the character of the neighborhood. If the zoning is changed, it will represent a lack of faith to those of us who came to Fairfax County" expecting land uses to be protected.
A Vale Road resident said, "Traffic at peak hours is bumper to bumper." But Robert Thoburn said school buses carrying students would be in or out of the school either before or after rush hour.
Former state legislator Larry Pratt, now head of an organization called the Committee to Protect the Family, said there are "First Amendment considerations" involved in this issue. "Parents have the right to put their children in private schools," Pratt said. "We have an equal protection question here."
Neal Markva, a spokesman for a Prince William-based group known as the Rutherford Institute, said his group "has a growing concern over property ownership in this county." He said there are only two questions involved in land-use decisions -- reasonable or unreasonable.
Markva's institute, or those representing it, recently jammed hearings in Fairfax that focused on amending local ordinances to allow churches to provide shelter for the homeless.
"There is an attitude that there is an adverse concern over private schools in this county. I hope that is not true," Markva said.
"Let me say what we have here is a land-use application. I don't want anyone to think the board might take a position against private schools," Scott said. Supervisor Nancy Falck told those attending the hearing, "I don't think there is a general understanding that we have to do this owner-blind." She said the fact that the school is to be operated by someone the county considers to have a good track record of providing quality education is not the issue.
"We are dealing with a private school" in an area that is planned for construction of single-family homes, Falck said.
"What we have at stake here is the comprehensive plan and whether people can rely on that plan. We just won a very important case in the Occoquan," Scott said. "Citizens have the right to expect the plan to be honored" as long as it is the county's adopted land-use plan.
"I'm very apprehensive about this with respect to the comprehensive plan," Scott said.