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Small Town Wary of Islamic School's Big Plans

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Poolesville, Md.

As residents walk through the center of town--past the taxidermy shop, past the gas station and Selby's grocery, past the Poolesville Barber and Stylist--they are surrounded by reminders of what brought them to this rural town.

But beyond the town's main street, there are clues that Poolesville may become the next link in the chain of suburbs that sprawls out from the nation's capital 35 miles away. Rows of look-alike houses springing up around every corner are obvious signs. And then there is the controversy over the newest neighbor.

To officials of the Islamic Saudi Academy, the decision to relocate here from Alexandria, Va., was one of practicality. Their school is bursting at the seams, and 525 acres of land near Poolesville seemed to fit their expansion plans. The Saudi Arabian government, which bought the land, has thrown in a few perks to expedite the deal.

But residents worry that they are being sweet-talked into the fast lane. "It's the old country bumpkin come up against the monolith," said Virginia Kennedy, the owner of the barber shop.

Drug-Free, Sex-Free School

Officials of the school see themselves as anything but a threat. The highly acclaimed academy, built to educate the children of diplomats and businessmen from Muslim countries, has become popular among American and foreign parents alike. Forty-five percent of the students at the pre-K-12 school are American, 38 percent are Saudis, and the rest are from 30 other countries.

The 1,250-student academy is divided into boys' and girls' schools. It is "drug free, sex free, and violence free," which is why parents are eager to enroll their children, said Sulaiman Al-Fraih the principal of the boys' school.

Another plus is the school's relatively low tuition--approximately $1,000 a year. The Saudi government helps fund the school.

Moving the school from Virginia to the $3 million plot the Saudis bought just south of the Poolesville town limits in Montgomery County, Md., would enable academy officials to build a new school, a mosque, and several staff houses--and have farmland left over that they could lease or use as part of the curriculum.

A Water Fight

The Saudis, believing that it would be easier to obtain environmental permits from the town than from the county, sought to have the land annexed by the town--and unleashed a string of protests from residents.

But town commissioners, in a 4-to-1 vote earlier this month, approved the annexation plan, saying it will help keep development at bay. Not only will it prevent county officials from building a proposed prison or more houses there, they argue, but it will also insure some control over development in the area.

Town commissioners also have been impressed by a few extras offered by the school's backers.

Hoping to fend off doubts about their intentions, the Saudis volunteered to pitch in some much-needed utilities for the benefit of the whole town--in the form of a $3.2 million sewage-treatment plant and a $1.8 million water line that would run from the Potomac River into town.

For two consecutive summers--and for the first time as far as anyone can remember--the town well water has run dry.

Jim Alsobrook, the town manager, said drilling a well and adding pipes could cost the town up to $300,000. Accepting the Saudis' offer would end the water shortage and keep the town from having to raise taxes, he said.

Residents hearing such explanations are quick to recall an old adage: There's a rat in the woodpile. Wary of the Saudis and of town politicians, residents have collected more than 1,000 signatures--considerably more than they need to bring the issue to a referendum in this town of 3,800.

"So far as the town trying to preserve the integrity of our small-town atmosphere by incorporating all of this land, integrity changes with the politicians," said Walter E. Johnson, the owner of the taxidermy shop in town. Mr. Johnson, who moved to Poolesville 15 years ago, said annexing the land under such a premise is "just a shuck-and-jive way of obtaining more land so they can build more housing developments" and increase the town's tax base. The Saudi property was one of three plots totaling 1,174 acres that town commissioners voted to annex.

Mr. Johnson said he doubted that digging more wells--no matter who pays for it--would solve the town's water crisis. "It's like, if you've got a bucket of water and you've got a couple of straws in it, the water goes on down, but at a steady pace and it gets a chance to be replenished," he said. "The town's idea is, we need more water, let's just start sticking some hoses in that bucket."

"They own the land," Mr. Johnson added. "They have a right to do whatever they want. But as far as annexation into the town, I guess it boils down to who you can believe."

Destined for Development

Reflecting a similar sentiment, Ms. Kennedy at the barber shop said she hoped the Saudis build their school, but she does not want it to be part of Poolesville. "I'm not sure the county's smart enough to deal with them," she said, "but better them than us."

At least one client in her barber shop disagreed. "I don't even want to see the school [built]," said John Bower, who grew up in Poolesville. "It's nothing personal, but once they get in here, they're going to take the place over."

Supporters of the project have called residents xenophobic, and lawyers for the Saudis have said that with or without Poolesville, the school eventually will be built.

Opponents of the annexation have until Dec. 27 to submit their petition, which would call for a referendum within 45 days.

On Oct. 31, a Saudi prince gave $55,000 to the Poolesville Elementary School parent-teacher association. The gift was announced two days after the town commissioners approved the annexation. Some said the prince should have delayed his donation until after the referendum.

But Mr. Al-Fraih said there was nothing unusual about the gift. "We believe in education, and we think they deserved this money."

Whether or not the town will hold off this most recent newcomer, one Poolesville resident, David Phillips, seemed certain of the town's future: "I've been around here and I've watched all these other little towns around here, and it comes. You can stand out there in the middle of the street and lay down in traffic . . . but it still keeps coming. You might slow it down for a while, pat yourself on the back, say I stopped this or that, but it still keeps coming."

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