George Mason University announced plans to build a 123-acre campus in Loudoun County yesterday, a move that placed it at the center of one of the most contentious development battles in the Washington region.
The site near Dulles International Airport would be donated by Greenvest LC, a politically connected development firm that is seeking permission to build the largest development in Loudoun history. Greenvest wants to build 15,000 homes around the proposed campus in a sparsely populated area.
The campus plans were greeted alternately yesterday with hearty praise and searing skepticism. Loudoun Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), who pushed for the deal, called it a wonderful development that would further his vision of new subdivisions, businesses and community improvements in his district.
But some officials and environmentalists said Greenvest's offer to GMU was a strategic move meant to sweeten the prospects of its own project. Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said the university is being used as a pawn in a political fight over whether the county should allow tens of thousands more homes than are already permitted. He and the Board of Supervisors chairman, Scott K. York (I-At Large), declined to join GMU President Alan G. Merten and other officials for a photo before the Loudoun dais yesterday.
Merten said the university is undaunted by political turmoil and is eager to move ahead to meet the growing demand for higher education in Northern Virginia.
"If we were concerned about political issues, there would be no George Mason University. There would be 105,000 people who wouldn't have degrees," Merten said, adding that when GMU was considering plans for earlier campuses, it had to confront controversies over growth. "When we moved out to Fairfax, there was nothing out there in the 1960s. When I went out to Prince William the first time, there was nothing there."
The university plans to request $2 million in the governor's next budget for planning the campus, but GMU officials said they could not estimate the cost of the campus, which they hope to open in 2009.
The university said the Loudoun campus would offer undergraduate classes, including general education courses intended for freshmen and sophomores, and graduate programs in health, teacher training, technology and management and public administration. There also would be research in medical imaging and biotechnology, officials said, and training and research in air transportation.
Merten said the university's ability to move ahead would depend on decisions to be made by local and state officials, as well as by Greenvest and GMU. He said that county approval for the Greenvest project was not a prerequisite but that he wants to see development in the area.
"We don't want a rural campus," Merten said. "I want people around us."
County planners recently released an analysis showing that changing the building rules as Greenvest has requested would allow developers to build 28,000 homes in the area, six times the 4,571 currently allowed. According to the analysis, the county would need to build 10 more schools and 10 more parks to accommodate the additional influx of 63,000 people.
County planners said Loudoun's road network is projected to become increasingly clogged without adding tens of thousands of homes.
Greenvest chief executive Jim Duszynski said his company would donate the land to GMU whether or not supervisors approve their project.
"We're in a unique position," Duszynski said. "We're able to do it for George Mason and the county and the future residents of Dulles South."
Greenvest has strong ties to several Republican supervisors who have pushed for an expansion of home building in the county. Greenvest executives contributed $18,000 to the campaigns of victorious GOP supervisor candidates in 2003. Since then, the board has moved to ease development restrictions in an area of Loudoun where Greenvest owns thousands of acres.
Bob Lazaro, spokesman for the Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council, said that with the gift to GMU, Greenvest is trying to obscure the effect of its "oversized" development proposal.
"It shows they are desperate to try to sell things," Lazaro said. "But no matter how much perfume they put on a cowpie, it's still a cowpie."
Snow said he works closely with the development community to improve the lives of county citizens. "We're not here in Loudoun County to shut the door on people. We want new vistas," he said.