The Islamic Saudi Academy has cleared the last legal hurdle to building an $80 million complex in Ashburn. But five years after the school won a special zoning exception for the 100-acre tract, no date has been set to start construction.
"We wanted to make sure that there was not an uncertainty looming over our land development permits," said school spokesman Anthony Nozzoli. He said the school would "make the decision to move forward" when all aspects of the project came together. He would not give details of those plans.
The school's special zoning exception to build on land designated for industrial use was to expire March 4, five years after its approval by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Melinda Artman, county zoning administrator, ruled that the school had not met requirements for "vesting" its exception, such as starting construction or obtaining an occupancy permit.
School officials appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals on grounds that they had obtained a zoning permit for building two baseball fields on the property off Ashburn Village Boulevard, south of Farmwell Road.
Before the supervisors passed their sweeping revision to the county's zoning ordinance Jan. 6, obtaining a zoning permit was considered adequate progress on a construction project to vest a special exception. The new ordinance requires either a building permit and work on the project or an occupancy permit. Artman argued that baseball fields constitute a park, which do not require zoning permits to build.
Three members of the appeals board -- E. Page Moffett, Nan M. Joseph Forbes and William S. Leach -- voted last Thursday to uphold the appeal. Board Chairman E. Frank Meyers III voted to deny it.
"I agree that a school is made up of more than reading, writing and arithmetic," Forbes said. The ballfields were "clearly a part of this school," she said.
In addition to the baseball fields, the school built an access road to them, widened Farmwell Road and paid half the cost of adding a stoplight. The school said that work cost more than $5 million.
It was that fact that persuaded Leach to uphold the appeal. "Wouldn't you concede that the expenditure of $5 million would demonstrate the intention to build a school?" he asked Artman.
The school operates on two campuses in southeastern and central Fairfax County, which it says are crowded. The new campus is supposed to include a high school, middle and lower schools, tennis courts, a gymnasium, playing fields, a prayer hall and towering minaret.
It would accommodate 3,500 students who would study an American curriculum, Islam and Arabic. The school withdrew last summer from the Virginia Association of Independent Schools but is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Granting the school's special exception in 1998 followed a heated community debate. Some residents opposed a school partly funded by the government of Saudi Arabia.
Others expressed concern that an Islamic school would pose a security risk to their neighborhoods, and still others said the community would lose taxes on the school's property without receiving anything in return. Many others, however, spoke of the diversity the school would add to Ashburn.
At that time, school officials said they hoped the facility would open in fall 2000. A year later, they said budgetary constraints were forcing them to delay the opening until at least 2003. Now, Nozzoli said, the school no longer has a date in mind.
None of the detractors spoke at last Thursday's meeting. Rather, a parade of community members spoke of the good that the school had already done for Ashburn. "They did use the little guys here in the county," said Tom Berezoski, a contractor who helped build the ballfields.
Robert Young, treasurer of the Dulles Little League, said the community could not afford to lose the fields, "especially ones as nice as these. . . . We need more neighbors as nice as these."