The Islamic Saudi Academy, a private school in Northern Virginia financed by the Saudi government, has announced that it no longer plans to build a 3,500-student campus in Loudoun County, six years after the school won the right to do so in a bruising public fight.
Academy officials, who did not explain the decision, said in a statement that they will sell the 101.3-acre site in Ashburn. County officials have approved the purchase of the prime land for $13.5 million as a site for public schools.
According to its Web site, the academy -- which maintains two campuses in Fairfax -- has more than 1,000 students, about half from Saudi Arabia.
"The Islamic Saudi Academy at this time has made a decision not to move the school from Fairfax County, and even with other offers to purchase the property, we would like to see the County of Loudoun be able to purchase the property for continued educational uses, much like we had intended," the statement read.
Loudoun supervisors approved the school's project in 1998, after months of public debate that was tinged at times with fear and xenophobia. Unsigned fliers appeared on Ashburn doorsteps, warning of a "Saudi invasion." Some residents raised concerns that the school could be a target of terrorist attacks, and others complained about the Saudi government's human rights record.
At the time, academy officials said they planned to open the school in 2000, but they pushed back the projected date several times, citing financial difficulties.
The supervisors voted Tuesday night to authorize the county to purchase the land. Vice Chairman Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac) said Saudi school representatives contacted him last week, saying they plan to invest in their Fairfax site instead of building in Loudoun.
"That ended up being a greater financial deal rather than the astronomical amount they were going to spend here," said Tulloch, who would not name his contacts.
"They were very quiet about selling this property," he said. "They could have gotten a great deal more money than we bought it for. . . . It's a very generous gesture."
Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III applauded the deal, saying the site is large enough for several schools in the heart of the fastest-growing section of the county. "Anytime we can get ahead on this land issue, it gives the School Board a huge advantage in planning," he said.
The academy leases their main Fairfax site from that county's government. In January, the academy received a lease extension to 2007.
Anthony Nozzoli, project manager of the Loudoun site, would not comment on the sale, saying only that the school's experience in Loudoun "has proved that people of all faiths can live in peace and harmony."
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy said he would not comment. An administrator at the school said he was in charge only for the day and was not aware that the land was being sold. He said Ibrahim Al-Gosair, the school's director general, was not available.
Ali Al-Ahmed, a scholar with the Washington-based Saudi Institute, which pushes for religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia, said the school might have abandoned its plans for a grand new campus because the academy's enrollment may have dropped. Al-Ahmed said the Saudi diplomatic community that forms the core of its student body has been shrinking since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"It's been very difficult for people to come here," he said.
The Saudi Academy's broker in the sale to Loudoun was the Leesburg-based real estate firm Carter Braxton, where former Loudoun board chairman Dale Polen Myers is an agent and worked on the deal.
"We're not in the business of asking clients why they are selling a property. That doesn't go just for the Saudis -- it's for everybody," said Tom Jewell, president of the firm.
Jewell said he and Myers worked on the sale. He declined to discuss the size of the commission.
Myers supported the Saudi Academy when she was board chairman in the late 1990s, when the school applied for permission to build.
Staff writer Michael Laris contributed to this report.