George Mason University has cleared its first hurdle in developing a new Loudoun campus.
In January, the school received preliminary approval of its plans from Virginia's State Council for Higher Education, the first step towards being allowed to expand into Loudoun.
"This approval allows them to continue the planning process in good faith," the State Council's Acting Director of Academic Affairs and Planning, Alan Edwards, said. "It is, of course, not a guarantee of anything."
Last fall, GMU announced plans to establish a new campus in Loudoun County using 123 acres donated from Greenvest LLC. The gifted acreage is located within a Greenvest development proposal north of the intersection of Route 50 and Route 659.
Greenvest had originally planned the development proposal without GMU.
"We changed our land plan when we began working with Mason," Packie Crown, vice president of planning and zoning at Greenvest, said. "There will be no more changes to our plans until we hear from them."
The proposed GMU campus and Greenvest's rezoning application are both located within the Upper Broad Run or Transition Policy Area. The Planning Commission is working on the Upper Broad Run and the Upper Foley Comprehensive Plan amendments (CPAM). The commission's decision could impact Greenvest's and GMU's ability to proceed with their plans.
"We are going to be in Loudoun County," Thomas Hennessey, chief of staff at GMU, said. "Where we are depends on what happens in Loudoun County."
Hennessey said GMU is committed to making a home in Loudoun and developing along with the Dulles South area. However, he said, a denial of the CPAMs could create problems.
"It will delay [the campus] because there would be no infrastructure for the campus or the faculty and students," he said. "We would have to move things back to meet with the growth of that area."
FOR NOW, HOWEVER, there are no thoughts of slowing down the planning process.
To receive preliminary approval, GMU had to submit a package to the State Council for Higher Education, Edwards said. The package included a detailed account of the need in the area, what programs will be offered on the new campus, how it will impact other schools in the area as well as an estimate of the scale of the project and how much the cost would be.
"This is a new process," Edwards said. "GMU is the first to use it."
In 2003, the language in the State Council's policy changed and, Edwards said, became confusing for some applicants. To clarify the process, the preliminary approval step was added in December 2005.
"The application for preliminary approval wasn't as detailed as the final approval would be," Edwards said, "and it didn't divulge anything that would put [the applicant] at a disadvantage for contractual negotiations."
Final approval for the application would have to come from both Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and the General Assembly, Edwards said.
Edwards added that GMU's ability to fill a need was a deciding factor in receiving the preliminary approval.
"There is a huge demand for higher education and these types of programs in Northern Virginia and there are not a lot of opportunities for degree programs in Loudoun," he said.
As soon as they got word from the State Council, GMU began working with a master planner on the details of the campus.
"We hired him at the end of last year and started working with him in February," Hennessey said. "We are working in sections, talking to the staff about what they would like to see on the campus."
Undergraduate and graduate programs in areas such as nursing and medical imaging and biotechnology will be the focus of the new campus.
"The finalization of an Inova hospital in that area will add to the clinical training for our students," Hennessey said.
WHILE GMU WORKS mostly with the state for the approval of its plans, Hennessey said GMU officials are in constant communication with the county government about the plans.
"Once we get the plans finalized we will present them to the county before we go back to the state," he said.
In addition to working with the county, GMU continues to work closely with Greenvest.
"We meet with them weekly," Crown said. "We are coordinating with them on everything."
The development planned for the areas next to the new campus will be critical to the campus existence. Areas such as the planned Arcola town center will provide supplemental facilities for GMU and its faculty and students.
"The town center is designed to accept facilities that are normally on campus, such as a bookstore," Crown said. "The whole idea is that gives them flexibility for building facilities on campus."
"The town center offers us opportunities that would not have been there otherwise," Hennessey said. "We will be able to have things like faculty housing and shared facilities like libraries and retail, food and bookstores."
The coming months will determine the future of GMU in Loudoun, but, for now, Hennessey is confident.
"There is a huge demand for this in the county," he said. "The [temporary] Sterling campus is expanding by 200 percent. I am really looking forward to the county and development community moving forward with their plans and being there to do this."