GEORGE MASON University is only 33 years old, but its staggering growth (29,000 students in 60 undergraduate and 88 graduate programs) leaves no doubt about the demand for higher education in Northern Virginia. Part of GMU's success is rooted in planting campuses where they're most needed: in booming suburban jurisdictions. Hewing to that strategy, the university announced plans this week for a new campus on 123 acres that a developer donated near Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County, the fastest-growing jurisdiction in this region and one of the fastest-growing in the nation. Inevitably, the decision became embroiled in one of the county's bitterest fights over development.

Loudoun, which has tacked between electing pro- and slow-growth Boards of Supervisors in recent years, is a badly torn place. Practically everyone in the county welcomes a GMU campus, but that's where consensus ends. The particular site offered to the school, just west of the airport, is in the heart of a still-rural area where developers -- including the university's land donor -- want to build homes for more than 60,000 people, turning fields and trees into a sizable community that would be anchored by the university campus. Those proposals intensify the jitters of a county already badly stressed by growth; forces opposed to such rapid change believe the developers are using GMU as a pawn to sweeten the prospects of a building boom in that area.

They may be right. But the university would also benefit from gaining a foothold in an area that could become a wellspring of communities feeding students to its new campus. In any case, county officials are duty-bound to make their own decisions about the future of land near Dulles. They may well roll out the welcome mat for GMU, whose presence in Loudoun would be an attractive amenity. In neighboring Prince William County, where George Mason began offering classes on a campus near Manassas in 1997, the university has proved a magnet for development. That may be a workable model for Loudoun. But in considering whether to grant permission for thousands of new homes in the area near Dulles, county supervisors should also weigh what could come with that decision: new roads, schools, parks and other facilities, and the likelihood of higher taxes.