In a news conference held during last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting at the Government Center in Leesburg, it was announced that Greenvest L.C., a Vienna-based land developer, will donate 123 acres to George Mason University for the development of a new campus. Located just north of Route 50 in Arcola, the announcement sparked both open excitement and concern from the supervisors and citizens.
While emotions were mixed, there was overall excitement about George Mason University’s interest in locating a campus in Loudoun County. The university already offers classes at the Ridgetop II Office Park but a satellite campus would further the relationship between the county and the school.
"Not only will GMU provide educational opportunities, but it will also have a positive impact on our community," said Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Bruce Tulloch (R-Potomac).
SLATED TO OPEN in the fall of 2009, the new campus will follow a similar model to the university’s expansion in Prince William County. This means a heavy focus on community integration — growing with an area instead of implanting within an already rigid structure. Tentatively, the plans are to develop a 150,000-square-foot building, which will serve as a multi-purpose facility, incorporating offices, classrooms and commercial space. The second phase of development involves the construction of four buildings with facilities distributed according to need. The long-term plan estimates roughly 5,000 students by the end of the 2015 school year. Initially the campus will be open for freshmen and sophomores. Over time the university will develop masters and continuing education courses, as well as centers of excellence and areas of research.
"The more the community and university can collaborate, the more advantageous it will be for both," said Dr. Thomas Hennessey, chief of staff at George Mason University.
In the coming years, the university will be looking for assistance from the county to build a performing arts center and library — by collaborating with the county, the structures could be shared by both. "Any campus has to be completely integrated into the community," Hennessey added.
WHILE EXCITEMENT FOR the new campus was evident at the press conference, the announcement opened up concern over the nature of the donation. Located in the Transition Policy Area, this area was designated to serve as a spatial transition from the suburban zoning of eastern Loudoun to the rural zoning of the west. The proposed increase in density for this transition region has been a heatedly debated subject in the county, pitting pro-development citizens against those in favor of keeping the Comprehensive Plan for land use in tact. Greenvest L.C. submitted a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPAM) to the Planning Commission in September 2004, and hopes to increase the zoning density of its land. With 4,200 acres of land split into four communities in the Upper Broad Run and Upper Folley areas, an increase in density would allow the company to construct more dwellings per acre than currently allowed. The Planning Commission’s decision on the Greenvest CPAM is quickly approaching. Some see the donation of land to George Mason University as a way to push the CPAM through the commission’s approval.
"I am thankful that George Mason is looking into our community, but I can’t support it if it means 27,000 more people into our community," said Supervisors Chairman York (I-At Large). "I can’t support the amount of houses that Greenvest wants to put there."
CURRENTLY THE COMPREHENSIVE Plan has budgeted 4,571 homes for the transition area, but with the proposed 15,000 dwellings intended by Greenvest, as well as CPAMs from neighboring developers, the total housing would increase to 27,977. The population is also estimated to increase to 77,000 from 14,000 — or five times larger than it is today.
"This is not just a Dulles South issue, it’s a Loudoun County issue," said Robert Lazaro, director of communications for the Piedmont Environmental Council. "We are all citizens of the same county and will be effected just as negatively."
Lazaro’s concern surrounds the fear that the infrastructure in the Route 50 area is not sophisticated enough to adequately support an increase in population that large. If the CPAMs are approved, it is estimated that 300,000 daily car trips would ensue on an already struggling road network. "Even if all the roads in the transition plan were built, the best they could do would be a D," said Lazaro, referring to the road rating system.
Tulloch, however, believes that the creation of a George Mason campus would benefit traffic patterns — in other words, more jobs in the county means less Loudoun residents commuting to other areas.
"This will cut down on vehicle trips," he said. "It takes cars off the road if it brings jobs here."
Additionally, some citizens are concerned with the need for more public facilities. It is estimated that 12 new schools would be needed for the Greenvest venture. Because there are no proffers required for this by-right development, it is believed by some that taxpayers will be left holding the bag.
Greenvest disagrees with this assumption, claiming that extra fees imposed on their residents will solve the problem. "Residents will pay fees, which back the funding of projects," said Vicki Bendure, representative for Greenvest L.C. "This way you don’t have the burden with taxes." The fee is a yearly payment of roughly $1,500 for all residents in the proposed Greenvest developments.
YET ANOTHER CONTROVERSY is emerging from Greenvest’s donation to George Mason University. According to York’s office, the donation was known only by a few members of the board, including Supervisor Stephen Snow (R-Dulles) and Tulloch. York wasn’t alerted to the decision until the Thursday before the meeting, even though the donation was months in the making, according to members of York's staff.
"This plan has been done by some supervisors in secrecy," said Keith Neusbaum, aide to York. "If we knew that GMU was looking for a site we could have helped them out." Neusbaum is referring to a tract of land off of Waxpool Road that measures 103 acres. Within a quarter of a mile from the Greenway and in close proximity to Howard Hughes Medical Institute, York’s office believes that this area is a prime location for a university. The land, which is designated for public-school use, is undeveloped acreage with an existing infrastructure.
"If they had a commitment on the land, they would be breaking ground with us as soon as the rain stops in the spring," said Neusbaum.
In a letter to the editor sent Tuesday, Snow claimed that Route 50 development has been the topic of a series of public hearings spanning a year and a half — none of which York attended, he claimed.
"This is a vision crafted by the community and Mr. York never attended a single meeting. None of us should be surprised if his plans are out of touch," he wrote.
Hennessey claims that George Mason University was never offered the land. The deal from Greenvest, however, was on the table. "If 123 acres was made for us in an appropriate location, we would build there," he said. "It was just a matter of Greenvest making an offer that we couldn’t refuse."
THE DECISION TO ALLOW George Mason University to build a campus in the Dulles South region still requires approval at local and state level. In the coming weeks York’s office will be gathering information on the vacant 103 acres off of Waxpool Road and reviewing it for a possible offer. On Sept. 26, at Mercer Middle School, the Planning Commission will have a public meeting concerning the development of the Dulles South CPAM.
While the future location for George Mason University is still uncertain, its interest in a Loudoun County expansion is not.
"It is now the right time and right place to extend the university into the community," said Dr. Alan Merten, president of the university.