A Saudi government-funded Islamic school in Northern Virginia is moving to a larger location near Dulles International Airport, creating an opportunity for a new community center or other development in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County.
The Islamic Saudi Academy has operated inside the former Mount Vernon High School since 1985. It plans to move next year to a school being built about 35 miles away, closer to the growing Muslim community in western Fairfax and nearby Loudoun County.
Because that site, just outside Herndon, is already zoned for school use, no hearings were required for the move, said Fairfax County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully,) who represents the area where the school is being built.
Frey said residents of the Herndon area so far have not expressed opposition to the school, despite growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States that was illustrated Monday by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's call for a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the country.
In 2009, a conservative Christian group unsuccessfully fought an attempt by the Saudi Academy to win zoning approval to expand another campus it owns near Fairfax Station.
Critics of the school cited the 2005 federal conviction of one of the academy's graduates, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was found guilty of joining an al-Qaeda conspiracy to kill then-President George W. Bush.
Two years later, a congressionally appointed panel found that some of the school's textbooks included language that was intolerant of other religions and could be construed as violent. School officials said they would alter the course materials.
"Has the atmosphere changed, or was it because there was no zoning process this time?" Frey said. "I'm not sure that it's not the latter."
A school official did not respond to a message seeking comment about the move.
On Tuesday, a task force convened by Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) will present options to the Board of Supervisors on whether to sell the 22-acre Mount Vernon property, turn it into a community center or once again make it a public school.
With overcrowded schools, no central community center and a struggling commercial corridor along Route 1, that area of Fairfax would benefit from any of the three options, officials said.
Hyland said he favors selling a portion of the land to a private developer and using the rest, including the existing 79-year-old school building, as a community center.
"It's a magnificent structure," Hyland said, noting the building's regal brick exterior, white rooftop turret and $8 million of interior renovations paid for by the Saudi government over the years.
Under a lease agreement with the Saudi Arabian Embassy, the property has generated about $100 million in rent for Fairfax since 1985. In addition, U.S. soldiers from the nearby Fort Belvoir military installation have studied Arabic there, county officials said.
When the school opens in its new building next fall, "it will be called the Saudi Academy," Frey said, with the word "Islamic" dropped from its name.
"That was a strategic decision they made a few years ago."