George Mason University's Board of Visitors on Wednesday gave the green light for the planning of a Loudoun County campus to begin.

The board's approval was unanimous. Officials will start interviewing architects and engineers this month. Working with a $400,000 budget, the university hopes to have a preliminary campus plan completed by the end of the year.

The board will weigh in at many stages of planning and development, said J. Thomas Hennessey Jr., chief of staff in the Office of the President.

Sidney O. Dewberry, who as rector is chairman of the board, said: "This is just one step in the process."

Officials hope to open the campus in 2009. It would offer undergraduate courses in health care, basic sciences, information technology and the arts and graduate programs in education, business, nursing and systems engineering. Students who have begun studies at other GMU campuses will be able to complete their degrees in Loudoun, and the university's continuing and professional education program will be expanded.

During a brief presentation Wednesday at GMU's Fairfax campus, Hennessey told the board that the university is seeking early approval for the campus from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The council typically does not make a judgment until campus plans are completely drawn, which could take another year, he said.

Early approval could help the school win local support and help in fundraising, Hennessey said. The 11-member council will consider the request at its next meeting, on Oct. 25, but approval would not be granted until GMU presents its preliminary plan in January.

The campus, which would be GMU's fourth in Northern Virginia, would be built on 123 acres near Routes 50 and 659. The land was donated by developer Greenvest LC.

The company wants to build 15,000 homes near the school. That has raised suspicions among some residents about the motivation behind the donation.

"We don't want to be involved in a political process," Hennessey said. "We were given that land no strings attached."

He said the university needs community support to develop the site as it has been envisioned -- a campus that shares facilities with the surrounding neighborhood. For example, the school could build a library that would double as a neighborhood public library. Building costs could be covered with state and local funds.

"Without support, we can't develop a campus that works," he said.