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GMU to Open Campus in 2009?

Greenvest expects to submit its application by the end of the year.

When Greenvest L.C. of Vienna announced in September that it was donating 124 acres of land in Arcola to George Mason University, controversy sparked over the location of the proposed campus. Those opposing the location say they will continue to oppose any such development there.

"The [proposed] campus is in the absolutely wrong location," said Robert Lazaro, director of communications for the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group whose mission is to promote and protect the Virginia Piedmont's rural economy, natural resources, history and beauty.

Despite the objections, Greenvest and the university are moving forward as planned. On Tuesday, Dec. 13, representatives from Greenvest met with the county's Planning Department staff for a pre-application conference.

"We felt really good about the meeting," said Packie Crown, vice president of planning and zoning at Greenvest. She said the county staff seemed receptive of the application proposal, and added Greenvest will hopefully submit a rezoning application by the end of the year.

Thomas Hennessey, chief of staff at GMU, said the university is excited about the prospect of a Loudoun campus. "It is where the demand is," he said.

THE CONTROVERSY, is not over GMU coming into Loudoun. Rather, it is about the location of the campus and the residential development to come with it. Lazaro said there is a site in Ashburn planned in a way to allow for a school, which has an existing road network and would satisfy GMU president Alan Merten's desire for a campus to be built in a high residential density area. Besides he said, the Ashburn site is connected to water and sewer services, while the proposed site in Arcola is not.

The Greenvest and the GMU application will go through as one application. However, while Greenvest showed its plan and design to the board, GMU is yet to offer a plan. However, said Crown, the university did hire an architect, Jim Miller, for the project.

Lazaro said PEC is opposed to the idea of using a public university as a smoke screen to build residential units. The 124 acres proposed for GMU was in a land area planned for industrial use. In November the land was transformed into business use, said John Merrithew, county's assistant director of planning. The Greenvest part of the application is located in a Transition Policy Area, created to serve as a buffer between suburban eastern Loudoun and rural western Loudoun.

MEDICAL TRAINING and nursing would be one of the main focal points of GMU in Loudoun County, said Hennessey. He said the program would help serve Inova Hospital as it is planning to expand its programs. The notion fits with the university's goal of growing together with the community, which will ultimately decide the purposes of the campus. The campus would also serve the purpose of a finisher school, said Hennessey. In other words, the educational program would be geared towards those students. Another program is a kindergarten-12 educational program, training teachers, principals and superintendents.

"A lot of teachers in Loudoun County are under provisional certificates," said Hennessey. He said he expects a large number of students to be from Loudoun County, but hopes the programs would take off to a level of excellence attractive to students from everywhere.

The planning process on GMU's part relies on two conditions, both from Richmond, before it goes to the county staff for review. GMU needs an approval from the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, which must approve all campus changes. Hennessey said GMU sent the request for a preliminary approval to the council, and once the campus's master plan is finalized, GMU will submit the full request for approval. The other condition is that there be enough money in the governor's budget for GMU. The university will also look for cooperation with Greenvest, and perhaps for some Public-Private Partnerships, to build housing on the campus.

"We don't want anything but a full campus," said Hennessey. He added GMU is hoping faculty and student housing will be completed before the campus opens. If everything goes according to plan, he said, GMU would break ground in 2007 and the first building would be up and running by 2009. "It is the best-case scenario, but it is realistic," he said.

CROWN SAID the total acreage of the property under consideration is 565 acres. With the 124-acre donation Greenvest is left with a little more than 440 acres for the development of the Arcola property. Crown said the proposed development would add 3,121 total dwelling units to the area.

The proposal includes a roughly 60-acre, 1,400-dwelling units, George Mason Town Center. The units are a mix of townhouses and apartment buildings. Some rental units would be included because of the university's proximity, so students could rent instead of having to buy an apartment. Of the 3,121 total units, 195 would be affordable housing and 656 would be workforce housing units. Workforce units, said Crown, are a new concept to the county. Those units are priced below market rate, but above affordable housing rates. The reason for these units, said Crown, is to retain the workers such as school teachers who usually cannot afford to buy market rate units in the area. She said it will encourage more first-time buyers and young couples to consider the units in Arcola.

Greenvest also plans to build up the roads in the area and a pedestrian bridge to connect the town center with the campus. The town center would include businesses complimentary to higher density residential areas, and attractive for students and faculty who will live on or near the campus.

CROWN SAID Greenvest will have many community meetings to discuss the development and the issues surrounding it. She expects transportation will be the theme of most of those issues. Her expectation is reflected in Lazaro's comments, made in September, regarding the controversy. His main concerns then were the lack of road infrastructure and the number of trips generated from the new population.

A year to 18 months is what Crown is hoping will be the length of the application process. Merrithew said it is hard to estimate how long the process will take, given GMU has not provided its plan yet. He said the proposed programs for medical training and nursing would work nicely with the proposed hospital site in the vicinity.

"It is pretty clear they want to move fairly quickly on this," he said.